Where the Open Exchange of Ideas is Most Protected and Valued

“[A] commonly held, and wrong, belief is that colleges and universities suppress speech as a matter of course. In fact, the higher education sector is where the open exchange of ideas is more protected and valued than most other sectors in society.”

That’s Sigal Ben-Porath, a philosopher at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, in an interview at 3:AM Magazine chock full of wisdom about many of the current debates about speech, politics, and inclusion in colleges and universities.

Professor Ben-Porath’s views on these matters is shaped by the historical and philosophical big picture, as well as her empirically-informed work on and experience with campus issues (see her Free Speech on Campus). The perspective is clarifying and informative.

Below are some excerpts from the interview, beginning with some general remarks about what universities are about:

Questions about viewpoint diversity, the boundaries of acceptable speech on campus, the need to encourage or discourage certain forms and types of expression on campus out of concern to maintaining an atmosphere of open minded inquiry, all these are the lifeblood of campus. It is what we do every day when we do our work well, and what we aim to teach our students to do. This does not mean that universities and colleges are perfect; we do fail when we create conditions that chill speech, when we discourage the expression of dissenting views, when we fall into patterns of dogmatic thinking. But to present higher education as a context where young people are being indoctrinated into certain political views, and where free speech is under attack, is to misunderstand research and teaching or to ignore the realities of campus life.

Interviewer Richard Marshall asks about some “common myths” regarding these issues. Professor Ben-Porath replies:

There are over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States, some of which are actively dealing with speech tensions, and there are many institutions of higher education globally which are dealing with similar tensions. The issue is commonly portrayed in the public debate as a matter of tension between a commitment to open expression on the one hand, and a commitment to inclusion on the other. This is a false dichotomy and a misguided representation of the two values—inclusion and freedom (especially freedom of expression)—as mutually exclusive. In fact, college campuses have many ways to address both commitments at once, by ensuring a robust and open inquiry. In the vast majority of cases, an inclusive climate is one in which more people and more views are protected and expressed. Focusing on marginal (though important) cases in which speech, especially bigoted, biased, and controversial speech, is exclusionary and undermines the equal standing of diverse members of the campus community is sometimes important, but it also distracts from the fact that for the most part the two values go hand in hand especially in the higher education context.

Another commonly held, and wrong, belief is that colleges and universities suppress speech as a matter of course. In fact, the higher education sector is where the open exchange of ideas is more protected and valued than most other sectors in society. Businesses regularly limit speech by their employees, as Elizabeth Anderson discusses in her recent book Private Government; schools are increasingly permitted to limit student and teacher speech, as Catherine Ross shows in Lesson in Censorship; social media platforms are run by private entities whose commitment to neutral protection of speech is questionable. Universities, while flawed, stand out as institutions where free speech is upheld. That does not mean we have nothing to improve—sometimes concern about hurt feelings can become exaggerated and chill speech; in some places viewpoint diversity should be more of an active concern than it is; and in many contexts some students are effectively silenced because their identities or ideologies are not equally valued. Free speech is regularly negotiated as part of our mission to expand and disseminate knowledge, and that is a constructive aspect of our work.

What’s going wrong in current debates is not an over-valuing of free speech, but an ideological co-opting of its banner:

While free speech has been politicized and even weaponized in recent years, I do not think that the correct response would be to downgrade it as a central concern for democracies generally and specifically for institutions of higher learning… Without wide protection for speech we lose part of the bedrock of our democratic values, in that we fail to protect the ability of individuals not only to think for themselves but also their ability to communicate their thoughts to others.

If we fail to protect speech in colleges and universities, and abandon the distinct ways in which it deserves and requires protection in the context of the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination, we lose our ability to push the boundaries of what we know both as individuals and as a collective (meaning, the knowledge held by a discipline, or by society). Institutions of higher education are built on the assumption that knowledge is evolving and progressing, and if we suppress speech we are sure to lose a key way in which our understanding of the world continues to grow. Downgrading speech as a key dimension of this work, and permitting its suppression, would mean halting the effort to expand and refine our shared knowledge, as well as limiting our ability to communicate and relate the knowledge we have to our students and peers. Hence I do not see freedom of expression as overly valued in the current debate; I do see it as sometimes improperly framed or wielded to advance ideological goals. To correct for that we—those who care about democracy and about research, teaching and learning—must not cede it to ideologues but rather hold on to its role as a cornerstone of both democracy and scholarly work.

Professor Ben-Porath emphasizes that we should not think that free speech and inclusion are necessarily in conflict:

I see freedom and inclusion as generally aligned and complimentary, and I suggest that tensions between them exist not at the core but only in the margins of their application. I reject this tension as inherent to the relations between these two important values, and I also reject it as it applies to the functioning of a university. If freedom as a general democratic value, understood negatively as lack of undue governmental restraints or positively as ensuring the substantive opportunity to act by one’s will, is respected and implemented, it ought to apply to all members of the democratic community. In applying freedom properly, we also recognize and implement a vision of inclusion, understood as creating access to all for participation as equal contributing members and to benefiting from all that the relevant community has to offer. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial vision of either freedom or inclusion…

While freedom, especially freedom of speech, is key to our mission, we cannot fulfil our mission if we fail to ensure that all of our members can openly speak and be heard—in other words, without true inclusion our mission to protect free expression as a way to maintain an atmosphere of free inquiry and leaning cannot be realized. For example, if members of racial minorities are consistently devalued and questioned, if women are consistently intimidated or ridiculed when they participate etc., than we do not in fact uphold and maintain an atmosphere of free inquiry, because we effectively silence or fail to hear what many in our community are contributing to the discussion. This does not mean that bigoted or biased speech must be censored to protect an inclusive climate, but it does mean that such speech—which is marginal to the overall endeavor—should be considered in light of its disproportionate impact on some members of our community. The university community, or some of its members (for example, student clubs, department, or the administration) can decide to take steps in response to exclusionary speech, for example by elevating the voices of those who are silenced by exclusionary speech, by emphasizing and enacting the inclusive aims of the campus, or by ensuring that there are groups, practices, and conditions that allow for all to participate and be heard.

I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Mohammad Ehsai, untitled

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