How Do You Teach About Free Speech and Academic Freedom?


If I wanted to plan a newsworthy cancellation, I’d invite Robert George to a small liberal arts college to talk about the value of free speech.

Professor George (Princeton) is an accomplished scholar and civil fellow, not some disreputable alt-right provocateur whose invitation to a university campus might seem at odds with its professional standards. But Professor George is also known for being outspoken about his views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and abortion, which are conservative positions likely to be seen by many students as attacks on the rights of women and gays and lesbians. Make the setting a small liberal arts college in a blue state and have the event be called “Is There a Cure for Campus Illiberalism” and voilà: the perfect combination of respectability, provocation, and irony for a possible headshaking news item on kids these days—if the students take the bait.

They did. Dammit.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone involved in planning George’s visit to Washington College in Maryland intended to generate a protest in which students entered the lecture hall, played loud music and shouted at the speaker, and brought the event to an early end. I have no evidence such a scheme was afoot. But really one couldn’t have planned it better.

George was invited to talk about “campus illiberalism” and his lecture was ended prematurely owing to interruptions and noise by protesting students, and now it is making the news (see accounts here and here).

In advance of the protest, the administration did acknowledge the controversy over George’s visit and planned alternative events for those who object to or feel attacked by his views, but, rightly in my view, did not withdraw the invitation. (Don’t get me wrong—to say I disagree with George’s views on these matters is an understatement).

During the protest, faculty and administrators asked the protestors to let George finish, but were unable to persuade the students to allow that to happen. There were security officers present, but, again rightly in my view, they did not intervene, nor did the administration ask them to intervene. (That the students ought to have let the speaker finish does not imply one ought to take coercive police measures at the time to shut down a non-violent protest preventing the speaker from finishing. I was kind of surprised to see FIRE, an organization of libertarian origins, so eager to send in the troops in this particular situation.)

What we have here is a case in which the administration did a pretty good job, even if they failed to prevent a speaker from being shouted down by the students.

It would have been better had the students been less inclined to shout down the speaker, or more susceptible to the reasoning of those who tried to convince them to voice their views after George had finished.

So perhaps we can use this event constructively. We can ask how, in our engagement with students—mainly in our teaching them in our courses—we should talk about disagreement and free speech.

Many of us teach about controversial issues over which people disagree, and many of us teach about the ethics and politics of speech. It would be good to hear both from teachers who think they have good lessons, materials, and teaching strategies on these matters, and also from teachers who find it difficult to teach about these matters.

I also don’t want to presume that all of my readers share the liberal view I express in this post, or that this view implies both that the students ought to have let George finish his lecture and that the administration ought not to have had security forcibly remove the students. Teachers need not view the situation as I do in order to share what they take to be valuable lesson plans, materials, and strategies for teaching about speech.

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Paul Wilson
8 months ago

Perhaps inspiration might be taken from literary critic Gerald Graff, whose book, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (Norton, 1992), inspired “teach the controversy”, something philosophers do every day.

(Note: the term “teach the controversy” has since been appropriated by creationists)

Last edited 8 months ago by paulscrawl
Dennis Arjo
8 months ago

Lately I’ve been juxtaposing “On Liberty” and the introduction to Words That Wound and seeing what happens. So far what’s happened are good discussions with most students being very even handed and sensitive to the pull of both sides. Most find ‘hate speech to be a real and worrisome phenomenon and a legitimate challenge to the traditional norms of free speech or academic freedom. At the same time, few are ready to let those norms be easily eclipsed by subjective clams of ‘harm’. My sense is that it’s a small number who try to deplatform controversial speakers, and this seem true with George’s ill fated talk as well.

Michelle Mason Bizri
Michelle Mason Bizri
8 months ago

I regularly teach a course on “Contemporary Moral Problems” — which includes focus on morally relevant questions about which I can expect my students to vehemently disagree. I instruct my students that if such a course is to stand a chance of succeeding, we need to agree on some ground rules. A prominent one is that no one is to launch what I refer to as a “conversation stopper.” No calling a colleague a racist, an infidel, a bigot, a sinner, a hater, or what have you. Prominent among our goals is to ENGAGE each other as fellow interlocutors and citizens — however uncomfortable that may be. You think I and other women don’t have sufficient bodily autonomy to render abortion potentially permissible? Well, I’m going to tell you why — by my lights — you’re wrong. You think that you have the right to shout me down because you are offended by my speech? Well, I’m going to tell you why — by my lights — you’re wrong. And, subsequently, I will listen to your argument as to why what I say should not see the light of day. I think that in many cases where students disrupt speakers their worry is that the speaker, by default of invitation, enjoys an implicit endorsement and that space for subsequent disagreement is artificially curtailed. The remedy is to ensure that events such as that to which George was invited allow equal time for meaningful dissent. Which, of course, is not possible if the students behave as they in fact have.

Matt Murphy
Matt Murphy
Reply to  Michelle Mason Bizri
8 months ago

Michelle,
With all due respect, I have to disagree. Professor George was invited there to give a talk and not to “ENGAGE.” His disruptors are not entitled to any time at all, let alone equal time. Your plan cannot seriously be to allow undergraduates to call the Director of the James Madison Program a fascist for 30 minutes. Even when giving a presentation to an academic audience where Q&A is the most beneficial, it still isn’t allocated equal time to the presentation.

Timothy Linehan
8 months ago

Many DN readers are probably already familiar with the free, online Perspectives program from the Constructive Dialogue Institute (formerly OpenMind associated with Heterodox Academy). But it’s worth a mention. Highly recommend. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from students over many years. Students often integrate (unprompted) what they’ve learned into assignments *months* after having gone through the program.

Helen De Cruz
8 months ago

Precisely because tech people and adjacent people have no clear view of what freedom of speech and thought involve (things I care a lot about, I’m not a free speech absolutist but I do think that they are great goods that are crucial to the well functioning of any society) I am organizing a series of three sessions on the topic.

It’s pitched at people from the tech sector and the focus is social media. To be able to reach out to them more effectively, I am hosting it on a platform called InterIntellect.

The speakers are Bryan Van Norden, Thi Nguyen, and Mari Mikkola. We’ll look at issues such as the classic debates (Mill etc), the problem with echo chambers, and specific issues such as pornography. This event is paid, all net proceeds (i.e., which is not asked by the hosting platform, the organizer and the speakers are foregoing honoraria will be directly donated to Give Directly.

More info here:
https://interintellect.com/series/social-media-and-free-thought-a-philosophical-guide-for-tech-developers-and-entrepreneurs/

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
8 months ago

This is not directly responsive to the OP’s questions, but of possible interest: a recent talk on “free speech on campus” by philosopher Edward (Ned) Hall (with a response by Prof. Danielle Allen).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSxT0tGh3v8

More ideological diversity
More ideological diversity
8 months ago

Problem: George’s views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and abortion offend students to the point of provoking illiberal protests.

Possible solution: teach George’s views on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

They are reasonable and well-argued, after all—and not to mention aligned with the views of much of the country (and will be for the foreseeable future).

The problem of ‘campus illiberalism’ may be more than just (some) students not appreciating the general value of free speech. It could also be that (some) students are insufficiently aware that non-progressives have good arguments too (“good” ≠ “unassailable”). We could do more to tell them.

Dr EM
Reply to  More ideological diversity
8 months ago

And risk protests about YOU! 😉 In all seriousness, I tried to teach sections of Boonin’s book Should Race Matter? and wasn’t allowed.

Tristan J. Rogers
Tristan J. Rogers
Reply to  More ideological diversity
8 months ago

I have tried this and had great success with students at a very liberal school in California. My sense, however, is that fellow faculty are less receptive toward such efforts, and given the dominant political bias in the profession, faculty are reasonably more afraid of their colleagues than their students.

On the Market
On the Market
8 months ago

Perhaps not everyone who partakes in an event called “Is There a Cure for Campus Illiberalism” must be an “alt-right provocateur” but anyone who convenes such an event sure is.

So I’m not sure there’s any particular conundrum here that would merit scholarly, as opposed to political. responses. Whether going after the speaker is an effective political response to alt-right provocation is the question at hand. But that question runs free from theorizing about free speech.

Us supposed intellectuals are routinely tricked into such theorizing in order to defend the political push towards illiberalism under the guise of a version of liberalism that is so abstract that it may delude one into thinking that it is illiberal to stand up against illiberal forces. The liberal commentariat, here valiantly represented by Justin, is too caught up in handwringing to notice.

That’s what I teach, anyway.

On the Market [too]
On the Market [too]
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

“Perhaps not everyone who partakes in an event called “Is There a Cure for Campus Illiberalism” must be an “alt-right provocateur” but anyone who convenes such an event sure is.”

By this definition, the extension of “alt-right provocateur,” which started with Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, has now ballooned to include Jonathan Haidt and “justifies” shutting him down (so long as it’s done in a politically savvy manner). Your teaching this is teaching your students to shut down the analogs of Jonathan Haidt amongst their peers. There is such a thing as competing illiberalisms.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  On the Market [too]
8 months ago

I don’t think it would be particularly controversial to sort Haidt with Spencer.

I didn’t advocate for shutting down anyone, I said that the “free speech” “debate” is a distraction from the real issue: how to respond to alt-right provocation in a politically savvy way, ie without playing into their hands.

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

Out of curiosity, who would be some examples of right-wing speakers – especially right-wing critics of campus illiberalism – who it would be acceptable to invite to campus?

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

None? What is your point?

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen. The world isn’t ideal, so we need to figure out how to deal with it when it happens.

If you don’t think that it is a regrettable consequence of liberal democracies that illiberal, anti-democratic forces can arise, we don’t have sufficient moral common ground to talk about any of this.

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

None? What is your point?

I think you just made it for me.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

And you mine.

I f you don’t think that right-wing agitation is a wrong that we must sometimes tolerate in order not to betray our own values, but rather think that such agitation is morally neutral (or even to be cherished and supported), we have reached a point where snark is all we have.

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

Just to expand on this: if you are happy to identify “right-wing” with “illiberal, anti-democratic” then we have very different conceptions of what democracy is. On my conception of democracy, regarding your political opponents not as legitimate players in the democratic process, but as enemies of the people whose very presence in that process is to be regretted, is more or less the essence of the “illiberal, anti-democratic” position.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

Last thing: if you’re unhappy with this identification, you’ve not been paying attention.

Matt Murphy
Matt Murphy
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

David,
It is always a joy to read your conversations with On the Market.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  On the Market
7 months ago

I’m going to try to be good and get my work done rather than be drawn into what could be a real time sink here. But I can’t resist asking just one question, and then (if I can) leaving it at that.

On The Market, you’ve just indicated that, in your view, there is not even one right-wing speaker — not one single right-wing person in a nation of hundreds of millions of people who are roughly evenly divided between a right-wing party and a left-wing party, or for that matter a right-wing speaker who could be brought in from a foreign country — who would measure up to your level of minimal acceptability for giving an on-campus talk on political matters. Clearly, your standards are exceptionally high.

My question is this: could you please list for us some speakers on the political left who are, by your standard, also too extreme to be allowed to speak on campus, and why they shouldn’t be allowed to speak?

I don’t mean people you judge to be on the political left in some respects but whom you would ban from speaking on campus because they hold a certain position that you associate with the political right. I mean people who, precisely because of views you acknowledge to be legitimately left-wing positions (even if on the extreme left), you would ban them, too.

For instance, we could imagine a speaker who wants to defends Stalin’s purges, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Or is it your position that any position on the political left can be heard on campus, while no position on the political right can?

David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Kalef
7 months ago

I’m going to try to be good and get my work done rather than be drawn into what could be a real time sink here.

That would have been a good idea, in hindsight.

Curious
Curious
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

Just curious: do others share On the Market’s view that this would not be controversial (to sort Haidt with Spencer)?

This seems wild to me. I get finding Haidt annoying and more. But he’s not even in the same ball-park as an alt-right figure. Someone who sees them as the same might be looking through a bubble with pretty thick glass.

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Curious
8 months ago

For what it’s worth I’d say it’s self-evident nonsense.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  Curious
8 months ago

Just to be clear, it is possible to think that two people are provocateurs while still seeing very significant moral differences between them. The claim wasn’t anything like “equally bad”.

Michael DiSciullo
Michael DiSciullo
Reply to  Curious
7 months ago

Of course not.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

I don’t think it would be particularly controversial to sort Haidt with Spencer.

Whatever one thinks of Haidt it does seem a bit controversial.

Michael DiSciullo
Michael DiSciullo
Reply to  On the Market
7 months ago

It would be insane, actually. In no world are those two people even related, let alone aligned.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

It is not illiberal to “stand up against illiberal forces,” but it is illiberal to prevent a speaker (esp. one invited to speak at an event) from speaking.

From what I know of Robert George’s views at second hand, I strongly disagree with his views, but the exercise of a heckler’s veto is never justified (if there are any exceptions, they would be extremely rare). Even if George were an alt-right provocateur, which as Justin W. points out he is not, the heckler’s veto is not the right way to deal with the situation. Boycott the talk or stand in the back of the room and silently protest. Preventing the speaker from talking only fuels this absurd cycle, as well as conveying an illiberal message.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
8 months ago

I didn’t advocate for the hecklers veto, I argued for refocusing the “debate” on the real issue: how to politically address alt-right provocations. If you are as opposed to the views in question as you claim, I’d expect you to agree with me on this.

So I assume you just wrote this to exemplify my point about how handwringing about free speech is a distraction from the actual political issues at stake.

Last edited 8 months ago by On the Market
AEG
AEG
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

It is astonishing that people respond to “on the markets” complaint that philosophers overlook the real issue at stake by repeatedly overlooking the very issue they are raising. Philosophers have a tendency to think debating the most abstract principles (“free speech”) can substitute for analyzing concrete political dilemmas (how to respond to right-wing provocation). While I disagree with the students heckling George, the real question at stake is not how we should “educate” the students about the value of free speech in the complete abstract, the real question is given that right wing provocation is ALSO a threat to liberal values of respectful discussion and disagreement, how do we respond to its weaponization through campus invited speeches? The reason you have to answer this question is that EVEN IF you can get your students to stop heckling the likes of George, then the right-wing will just invite more horrible speakers like Charles Murray so they can get the response they want. You can’t develop an adequate response to their tactic if you ignore it is even a tactic and pretend it would go away if only the students understood the value of free speech.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  AEG
8 months ago

“the real question is given that right wing provocation is ALSO a threat to liberal values of respectful discussion and disagreement, how do we respond to its weaponization through campus invited speeches?”

I agree that is one question — I don’t think it’s the only one — and I don’t have a completely adequate answer. Btw since I’m not a philosopher (or employed in any capacity in a university), I don’t really have to have one in an immediate way. I did mention boycotting and silent protest. It seems to me that if people ignored the deliberately chosen “provocative” speakers or boycotted them, the tactic would decrease. But I do think there is a point in teaching students about the general value of free speech and disagreement, even while noting these issues of “weaponization.” There’s also value in having a wide range of views expressed on a campus. (Robert George’s views, while on one end of a spectrum, are likely not outside the bounds of what should be permitted, since those bounds should be wide.)

P.s. Afaik, the fact that I’m not a philosopher does not disqualify me from commenting on this blog, even though the blog’s subtitle is “news for and about the philosophy profession.” If the blog’s proprietor wants to allow only philosophers to comment here, that’s his prerogative, but afaik he hasn’t done that.  

David Wallace
Reply to  AEG
8 months ago

It is astonishing that people respond to “on the markets” complaint that philosophers overlook the real issue at stake by repeatedly overlooking the very issue they are raising. Philosophers have a tendency to think debating the most abstract principles (“free speech”) can substitute for analyzing concrete political dilemmas (how to respond to right-wing provocation).

We’re not overlooking it: we’re actively rejecting the proposed framing. On the Market writes “Whether going after the speaker is an effective political response to alt-right provocation is the question at hand. But that question runs free from theorizing about free speech.” But it only runs free if that theorizing has not already delivered the result that we should uphold a systematic principle of not going after speakers, whether or not it would be an effective political response in a particular situation. Those of us ‘theorizing about free speech’ think that it has delivered exactly that result, and so the issue of effectiveness in this particular case is moot.

Compare; would it be an effective response to a given alt-right provocateur to kidnap their child and threaten to harm her unless the provocateur recants? Very possibly, in some circumstances. Would it be an effective response to assassinate them? Again, very possibly. Should we discuss the pros and cons? No, in either case, because we accept a general principle that we should not use kidnap and assassination as political tools, and having accepted that general principle, the specific case is moot.

AEG
AEG
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

The only way I can understand your response is to assume you mean to say that the general principle that justifies rejecting this kind of heckling is so obvious (as obvious as that we should not kidnap or assassinate anyone) that we cannot possibly even discuss it on a spectrum of tactics for responding to right-wing provocation. But this misses my whole point, since AS I SAID ABOVE I also disapprove of the tactic of heckling. So how is what you said related to what I said? My point was once we accept the general principle of free speech, we still have a question that remains: what to do about right wing provocation? If your answer is we should do nothing, then you are a political quietist with nothing to contribute to this discussion except to remind us of the general principle of free speech that we already said at the beginning we accept. But this is precisely what “on the market” finds objectionable: going after anyone who wants to talk about political tactics by insisting that reiterating the general abstract principle of free speech and implicitly calling for total quietism and resignation is itself the only respectable approach.

David Wallace
Reply to  AEG
8 months ago

I don’t think the general principle is *obvious*; I think it’s *true*. And if it’s true, it takes ‘silence the speaker’ off the table as a permissible response, and requires you to look for other responses. (‘Ignore them’ and ‘organize a counter-event’ being the obvious choices.)

This is just moral philosophy 101: the whole point of a right is that you don’t do a pros-and-cons assessment of whether you should break the right whenever it would be convenient for your goals: you treat it as a constraint on what you can do to achieve those goals. Unless you’re an extreme deontologist you’re going to be willing to consider whether the harms done in respecting the right in some extreme situation are such that you should violate it, but the default presumption is going to be that you shouldn’t, and violating the right carries significant weight even if you do decide it’s justifiable in this specific case.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

“you’re going to be willing to consider whether the harms done in respecting the right … are such that you should violate it”

Yup, exactly.

All this is understood. Including, I’d venture, by the students who are exercising their heckler’s veto. It’s not the issue that is at stake.

What is at stake is which responses to harmful speech are apt and appropriate.

Last edited 8 months ago by On the Market
David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

You are quoting me out of context. My point is exactly that if something is a *right*, you *don’t* do that kind of consideration on a routine basis: you do it only in extremis, and in the recognition that the very fact of breaking it is a factor in the consideration.

(Incidentally, though I’m putting this in terms of *moral rights*, it also applies at the level of university *policy*. Is it a good idea for a university to have a systematic policy on free speech on campus? If so, should it have exceptions for any sort of speech? And if so, who is empowered to make decisions on edge cases? One can debate what the policy can be, but there is a lot less space to debate whether the policy should be followed in a specific case.)

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

What makes you think that this is done routinely, casually, and in non-extremal cases?

Students, particularly minority students, feel very threatened by the very real prospects of losing rights (it already happened with abortion in the US), and see open advocacy for the removal of their rights as part of that threat. This is in extremis, for them.

“Educating them on the value of free speech” is essentially telling them to suck it up. They need tools to politically respond to such speech they perceive as harmful, because in the absence of these tools they are in an extremal situation and will do their moral reasoning accordingly, indeed as you outlined it.

Last edited 8 months ago by On the Market
David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

On the basis of your earlier comments, it looks as if any situation where a right-wing speaker gets invited to campus is an extremal case. I’m not clear what you even think the non-extremal cases are.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

You’re avoiding the issue. This is just you and me disagreeing on how radicalized the right wing is again.

Again: students perceive a moral wrong that demands a response. The hecklers veto is a last resort response, as you yourself agree. The *issue at hand* is when to go for the last resort, and what can be done instead of it.

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

I don’t think it’s a last-resort response, except in the sense that I think assassination is a last-resort response – i.e., yes, since I’m not Immanuel Kant I can acknowledge that there will be some sufficiently baroque scenario you construct in which I think silencing a person (or indeed assassinating them) is morally required, but in practice we can ignore those cases.

As for how radicalized the right wing is: this isn’t the right place to have that conversation, but I find it difficult to take seriously a position that says there is *no one at all* on the right who is not illiberal and anti-democratic. (Anne Applebaum? Mitt Romney? David Frum? Nick Catoggio? Bill Kristol? Kevin Williamson? Megan McArdle? Ross Douthat? Reihan Salam? Rishi Sunak? David French? Tom Tugendhat? Jonah Goldberg? Condoleeza Rice?) And Robert George was a Never-Trumper, as I recall.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

I have an equally hard time taking seriously a position equates heckling with political assassinations, so there’s that.

PhilMath
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

Oh come on: to read DW as equating heckling with political assassinations is clearly misguided and incredibly uncharitable, verging on trolling.

AEG
AEG
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

It’s quite condescending to say this is a “moral philosophy 101” point as you are in the middle of maliciously misinterpreting me for the second time in a row and after I already corrected your misinterpretation. Let me say it a third time: I agree the speaker has a right to speak. You agree he does. This issue is not in dispute, and i am not making a mistake that could be corrected through “moral philosophy 101”. For someone who is advocating free and civil speech, you really do so in a way seemingly designed to close down speech. My point was (to reiterate yet again) that if we discuss this campus issue merely in terms of how to educate students on the value of free speech, rather than addressing the concrete tactical question of how to deal with right wing provocation if we rule out heckling of this kind, we are obscuring the real issue at hand and working to silence those (yes, the students whose heckling I think was misguided) who are actually addressing this very real issue. Please stop engaging in malicious misinterpretation if you want to champion open and free discussion.

David Wallace
Reply to  AEG
8 months ago

I’m really confused by this response, and also not sure how much point there is continuing a conversation after accusations of malice are made, but in any case I’ve commented at some length on the “concrete tactical question” further down this thread, so I’ll probably not try to disentangle what’s going on here. (If I was simply misunderstanding you and you agree with me that it is just categorically wrong to silence speakers in any realistic scenario, apologies. It’s clear ‘on the market’ does not so agree and I may be confusing your views.)

Last edited 8 months ago by David Wallace
On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

“agree with me that it is just categorically wrong to silence speakers in any realistic scenario”

I know we are generally flabbergasted by each other, but this is a new height (or low) for you.

So if my crackpot colleague wants to have a holocaust denier speak? Or a white supremacist? Or, whatever, a flat earther?

If I think that’s a violation of the dignity of the university, a grave, immoral misuse of the implicit prestige still attached to academia, and take steps to stop that — I risk, as you write below, the university no longer being a university?!

What exactly is the concern here? That the flat earther might be on to something? We owe it to our pursuit of truth to hear him out?

When in god’s name, and with all my heartfelt sincerity, David, did universities *essentially* become places where any sort of garbage *must* be heard, subject to no standards, moral, scientific, pastoral, or otherwise?

Dear lord, you’re one of these Oxford Union people aren’t you?

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

I’m should probably stop responding after this, because I don’t think this is constructive, but:

What exactly is the concern here? That the flat earther might be on to something?

The same concern as always: that a content-neutral approach to campus speech is far safer, far less vulnerable to groupthink or ideological capture or peer pressure or donor leverage or leadership malice, than any attempt to litigate content-based restrictions, that a certain amount of complete nonsense is a small price to pay for its benefits, and that defending it involves defending the general policy, not the specific value of any given piece of speech. (ACLU didn’t support the right of the Nazis to march in Skokie because they thought they had anything interesting to say.)

(Put another way: I agree with you that a talk by a holocaust denier, in itself, is worthless (at best). But I don’t want you to have the power to block them, because I think before long you’ll use that power to block anyone with right-of-center politics.)

We owe it to our pursuit of truth to hear him out?

You don’t need to hear anyone out. If you wandered into a flat earther’s lecture by accident, no doubt the exit is clearly marked. If your idiot friend wants to go, by all means try to convince him to do something better with his time. But don’t prevent him by force.

When in god’s name, and with all my heartfelt sincerity, David, did universities *essentially* become places where any sort of garbage *must* be heard

They never did. But they have long aspired to essentially be places where you are not allowed to infringe anyone else’s right to listen to anything they want to, even if you think it’s garbage.

Dear lord, you’re one of these Oxford Union people aren’t you?

Couldn’t stand the place, to be honest.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

“a certain amount of complete nonsense is a small price to pay for its benefits”

I suppose you’d disagree that the amount has gotten larger and the price has gotten steeper in recent years. But even if you do, you can’t deny that many think that it’d gotten steeper and that the kind of general theorizing you prefer just isn’t helpful to them. Which is what I’ve been saying all along.

Also, I don’t think true content-neutrality is or ever was the actual policy or situation. Physicists teaching flat earth, historians denying the holocaust, or ethicists defending white supremacy, are all subject to varying levels of content-based oversight. Rightfully, in my opinion, as a university is also obliged to maintain certain scholarly standards. But I don’t want to litigate that with you.

“Couldn’t stand the place, to be honest.”

fwiw that actually makes you sympathetic.

Last edited 8 months ago by On the Market
David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

I suppose you’d disagree that the amount [of complete nonsense] has gotten larger and the price has gotten steeper in recent years.

I would disagree, but not for the reasons you think: ‘complete nonsense’, in this context, is the extreme examples you used in your previous post to express disbelief that I supported a completely content-neutral speech policy: holocaust denial, open white supremacism, flat-earthers. There is virtually none of that on campus. The fact that you’re sliding so quickly from those examples to actual right-wing speakers on campus is *exactly* the slippery slope that is why I don’t want a speech policy with content-based exceptions.

Also, I don’t think true content-neutrality is or ever was the actual policy or situation. Physicists teaching flat earth, historians denying the holocaust, or ethicists defending white supremacy, are all subject to varying levels of content-based oversight.

I think that’s just a matter of context. In a teaching context (like an accredited class) then a university can and should require that I teach the scholarly consensus. (I can’t teach the steady-state theory of cosmology in a cosmology class as if it were true, because there’s overwhelming consensus in cosmology that it’s wrong.) In a research context, then it can and should require the weaker standard that I stay within what’s accepted as legitimate scholarship. (I can give a cosmology research seminar on the steady state theory, but not on the book of Genesis.) In a general extramural context neither applies. (I can advocate a literal reading of the Book of Genesis in a Christian Union meeting.) I’m (again) not saying anything original here: this is just AAUP’s standard breakdown of academic freedom.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

You vacillate between two views, not just here, and not just in conversation with me.

1. one that is indeed nothing new, just what everyone understands about free speech, namely that it has limits and is not entirely content-neutral

2. one that is shockingly absolutist, excluding “any attempt to litigate content-based restrictions” and that acknowledges permissible restrictions on speech only outside of “any realistic scenario”

Whenever someone points out that (1) means that you disagree with those students who wish that certain things not be said in a scholarly setting merely on where the line is (so there is no substantive problem with their grasp of free speech), you go for (2). And whenever someone points out the obvious problems with (2), you go for (1).

So I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve been desperately trying to agree with you on (1) and from this common ground build at least a shared understanding of what the practical, political matter is. But you seem loath to do that.

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

I don’t understand this. I go for (1) when we’re discussing speech in a research or teaching context, (2) – which is really just the First Amendment definition of speech – in an extramural context. Making that division is neither radical nor original. Where’s the vacillation?

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

I took research settings to be “realistic scenarios”.

I guess I’m confused about how you see why there are speech restrictions in some university settings that are important for the university’s mission, but think it ludicrous that there would be similar reasons for having restrictions on campus events, again related to the university’s mission.

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

It’s is a basic principle of academic freedom that it only protects academically rigorous, work when it comes to research and teaching. It doesn’t protect quackery, fraud, incompetence, etc. Freedom of speech recognizes no such distinctions. It can vary, but college and universities very often invite speakers without academic credentials for non-academic events, so there the principles of free speech are operative.

PhilMath
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

And here we go, (unfortunately) as expected: ad hominem attacks.

On a purely logistical point, being able to anonymously participate in discussions here is great (I say this as a junior and an underrepresented minority in the philosophical academy). If you feel that you must sling mud at someone could you at least not hide behind a pseudonym? Justin might — correctly — think that it is too much work for him to moderate discourse and limit our ability to post anonymously here.

James Hanley
James Hanley
Reply to  AEG
8 months ago

“we still have a question that remains: what to do about right wing provocation?

Why specifically right-wing provocation? Why not attempt to distinguish “provocation” from “serious thought,” and leave it content neutral?

It seems to me that there’s a risk, whether or not this is v what you intend, that by focusing solely on “right wing provocation” you signal that conservative thought is inherently illegitimate and can automatically dismissed or prohibited – even that conservative thought can never be more then mere provocation – while privileging liberal and left-wing thought.

But that kind of privileging of certain ideological perspectives over others – while of course always, unfortunately, present – has never been the ideal of scholarly discourse and behavior.

It seems to me that we have here some folks who are happy to betray the intellectual tradition of open debate, of having to intellectually defend one’s ideas instead of just shouting down others. They eagerly join the ranks of past violators of the scholarly tradition who they would presumably despise, such as those who tried to prevent Communists or atheists from speaking.

They do so without the slightest awareness of their own hypocrisy, but with overeeening confidence that by preventing free inquiry they are counted among the morally just.

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  AEG
8 months ago

I don’t think philosophers have his tendency actually, and I can’t imagine anyone teaching free speech without getting into specific real world issues (what would be the point?). The focus here started on teaching free speech because that was the focus of Justin’s post, and it’s focused on the philosophical questions because that’s what philosophers do. The tactical question of what to do about ‘provocateurs’ on campus is a different issue altogether. That is indeed an important question for activists, but it’s a confusion to suppose that’s the only ‘real’ issue.

Edward Cantu
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

Perhaps not everyone who partakes in an event called “Is There a Cure for Campus Illiberalism” must be an “alt-right provocateur” but anyone who convenes such an event sure is.”

I’m not sure why you think this. Aside from the example of Haidt, a few years ago FIRE came to my campus and spoke on campus illiberalism, a program they “convened.” I spoke with the FIRE representative. Both of us were liberals.

Aeon J. Skoble
8 months ago

The students who were engaged in playing loud music etc to prevent the talk from happening were violating the rights of their fellow students, never mind the speaker’s rights.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
8 months ago

Really? I would need to see an argument for the existence of these alleged rights.

Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Kaila Draper
8 months ago

Surely students at the college have a right to participate in programming the college offers. If they’ve paid tuition and fees, they’re entitled to attend classes they’ve registered for and events and activities the college makes available. That includes using the gym, hearing guest speakers, and everything in between.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
8 months ago

They may have a right against the college to such things. But that doesn’t mean they have a right against their fellow students to such things.

James Hanley
James Hanley
Reply to  Kaila Draper
8 months ago

You are arguing that there is no right to receive information, or more precisely, no right against someone trying to deny you the opportunity to receive information.

Consider how dangerous that path is. It effectively grants a right to prevent people from receiving information. That is unacceptable in itself. But it also de facto destroys the right to speech, because the right to speech has to be more than the right to say words that nobody can possibly hear.

I find your position disturbingly illiberal.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  James Hanley
8 months ago

No, I’m not arguing that. But I think identifying the scope of the right to liberty is very tricky. (Who would have thought?) Whether and under what circumstances it includes a right to hear speech of various kinds (e.g., expressions of bigotry) that others have an interest in drowning out strikes me as a really hard question to answer.

Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Kaila Draper
8 months ago

So, if some students who didn’t like some one student Bob were forcibly blocking Bob from using the gym, Bob would have a complaint against the college but not against the other students? That seems very wrong.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
8 months ago

Assuming that their aim was to interfere with Bob’s movement, that would violate Bob’s right to liberty (as I have argued in print). How analogous that is to the issue at hand is the million dollar question.

James E Hanley
James E Hanley
Reply to  Kaila Draper
8 months ago

Frederick Douglass put it more eloquently than I did.

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.”

Dr EM
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
8 months ago

I’ve mused about whether there might be a ‘right to hear’ that is being violated when a group of students who have paid to bring someone to speak to them, is interfered with in this way.

Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Dr EM
8 months ago

It’s no different than if people started heckling and shouting me down in class such that I couldn’t teach. That would violate the other students’ rights, and those students (the shouters) should be expelled, and the college is wrong for not doing so.

David Wallace
8 months ago

From Justin’s original post: “That the students ought to have let the speaker finish does not imply one ought to take coercive police measures at the time to shut down a non-violent protest preventing the speaker from finishing. I was kind of surprised to see FIRE, an organization of libertarian origins, so eager to send in the troops in this particular situation.

I’m kind of surprised in turn by Justin’s surprise. FIRE’s letter on this seems both very clear and pretty compelling. Relevant extracts:

“Washington College policy explicitly states it will ‘intervene in…protests and demonstrations when others are deprived of their rights’…”

“[W]ithout proper enforcement of that policy and the others Washington College maintains sounding in free speech, those engaging in non-peaceful protest effect a ‘heckler’s veto’…”

“Colleges renege on their free speech policy promises – and further incentivize censorship by heckler’s veto – when they permit this kind of misconduct.”

I can see a case for not immediately using coercive physical force in a situation like this – it would depend sensitively on the facts on the ground and I’d be nervous about second-guessing those facts – but that’s only a reasonable defense if the college otherwise takes actual disciplinary measures against protestors who deprived the speaker of their speech rights (it’s unclear if that’s happening). But in any case, don’t even libertarians accept that the authorities can and should intervene to prevent rights violations?

David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
8 months ago

Fair enough. If we’re disagreeing, I think it’s only on the second-order issue of where FIRE is coming from. I even agree that they should probably have acknowledged the safety risks. (I do think it’s important that a university responds to this sort of thing *coercively* – even if not with in-the-moment physical force – and not just by thinking about how it teaches its students, and so I don’t really know whether the admin “did a pretty good job” yet.)

Preston
Preston
8 months ago

I want to be clear that what I say is not defending (or renouncing) what the students did in this case – I don’t know George’s work well enough to have a view about it.

What I do want to say though is that I am very exasperated with philosophers discussing this issue as though it is about liberalism vs. illiberalism in free speech discourse.
Are people really of the position that we should be allow for anyone, with any political view whatsoever, as abhorrent as it might be, should not be protested and even silenced? If DeSantis decides tomorrow that every public university in Florida is required to have a public speech for any interested students on why the Holocaust never happened, we should be mad if some students gather to engage in a ‘heckler’s veto’ of the event? Is that how far in Plato’s Heaven us “liberal” philosophers live? I for one would be standing with the students shouting just as loudly if someone was doing that on my campus. I guess that makes me illiberal?

Of course, the correct response to this is: “Ok, of course, Holocaust denial crosses a line. But Professor George isn’t professing anything as abhorrent as that.”
Right, I agree. But now we are engaged in a substantive first order debate about where the line is – what views merit the heckler’s veto, and what not? I have a relatively wide view about what kinds of opinions should be allowed to be openly debated on a university campus, just like it seems many of you do. But I don’t pretend that it is because I have some lofty, exceptionless principle about how all ideas, no matter how abhorrent or concretely harmful to actually existing people they are, should be allowed to be defended at a university sanctioned event.

Y’all’s disagreement with the students here is about where the line between acceptable and unacceptable university sanctioned speech is and how broad that category should be, not between “liberalism” and “illiberalism”.

David Wallace
Reply to  Preston
8 months ago

Are people really of the position that we should be allow for anyone, with any political view whatsoever, as abhorrent as it might be, should not be … silenced?

Yes.
(I’ve elided ‘protested’. I don’t think anyone here is arguing against the right to protest, as long as it doesn’t prevent the speaker from speaking.)

If DeSantis decides tomorrow that every public university in Florida is required to have a public speech for any interested students on why the Holocaust never happened, we should be mad if some students gather to engage in a ‘heckler’s veto’ of the event?

No: those students are fine, because there is all the difference in the world between an external entity forcing a university to host certain speech, and that university, or people within that university, freely choosing to host it. The former is itself a pretty serious free-speech violation, irrespective of the content.

(Incidentally: de Santis has made official visits to Israel, and supported bipartisan antisemitism legislation in Florida which among other things explicitly called out holocaust denial as a form of antisemitic prejudice. Unless you have some specific reason to think he would support holocaust denial, this example is in poor taste. de Santis has done enough actual harm to academia (and more generally) without having to invent things.)

Christopher
Christopher
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

A couple thoughts:

If an extreme external entity forces a university to host a speech, you’d, by your reasoning, still have to quietly and politely wait for it to be finished. It isn’t morally relevant how the speaker got there, if we have to respect all speech so long as it doesn’t violate (I assume) the Harm Principle. The cases are not different in the relevant sense.

Further, I doubt that a university can be said to have freely chosen to host someone in at least one sense, if the speaker is someone who routinely questions the rights of those on campus. Those people not on the invite committee didn’t have a say in whether that person was invited, and they are exercising their veto on the invite when they can, when the speaker is actually present. How is this morally different than the committee preemptively “silencing” this speaker by just not inviting him at all? Is it that it’s less rude, and didn’t waste his time?

Last edited 8 months ago by Christopher
David Wallace
Reply to  Christopher
8 months ago

My (not very original) view is that a university needs to permit, and actively defend, the rights of its faculty and students to organize whatever events they want to, subject to logistical constraints but not content-related constraints. The university as a whole isn’t making choices of who to invite, it’s facilitating the choices of its members. University members have an obligation not to prevent those events, and if they attempt break that obligation, the University has an obligation to stop their attempt.

Since the ‘external entity’ here is by construction external, none of that applies. I haven’t stated, and don’t believe in, any systematic right for any random person to invite themselves onto campus, or be invited by some other non-community member, or even be invited by a community member in a way that doesn’t respect logistical constraints. If a student society wants to invite (e.g.) Milo Yiannopoulos to campus to give a talk, that’s entirely up to them. If Milo just wanders into the corridor outside my office and starts ranting, I’m calling security.

(Incidentally, I have no idea why DN’s software thinks I’m ‘David Jones’.)

Preston
Preston
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

David,
Can you explain your grounds for believing in an extremely strong (moral, not legal) free speech right as you are defending in this thread, and how that relates to the view you give in this comment, which feels extremely specified to a certain context?

If free speech is such a strong right that it cannot, outside of preventing an extreme and rare tragedy, not to be violated, why would the fact that the university didn’t invite someone on campus somehow undercut that person’s free speech right?
(And why are the students heckling the speaker not also exercising their free speech rights? Certainly in a context where two people are shouting political slogans over each other on the street, neither of them are violating the other’s free speech rights.)

Anyway, I guess I understand your view, but I think it is deeply mistaken. And if your justification is the standard Millian one, your conclusion is *far far* stronger than the premises that support it. But perhaps this isn’t the proper venue to settle that dispute, so I’ll leave it at that.

David Wallace
Reply to  Preston
8 months ago

You’re misunderstanding my view (which, as in all cases of misunderstanding someone’s view, is as likely as not to be because I wasn’t putting it clearly enough.)

I’m not claiming that there’s some natural-rights free-speech entitlement that’s strong enough to entail that (e.g.) it was wrong to silence Robert George. (I think there is a natural-rights free-speech entitlement, but it’s much weaker.) I’m claiming that a university creates that right when it establishes the sorts of free-speech policies that universities normally create, and that once it’s created that right, it and its members have an obligation to respect and enforce that right. I’m also claiming, though I haven’t defended it here, that an educational institution that wants to function as a university has a strong, bordering on definitional, obligation to create a right like that, and that there are strong societal obligations in favor of having universities that create rights like that and of having courts and legislatures protect and support those rights. (So for instance, it is wrong for Ron de Santis to curtail those rights in Florida’s university system – and not just because of the conflict with the First Amendment, although the courts’ deference to academic freedom in interpreting the First Amendment is also part of the package I’m describing.)

Downstream of this, I think the main rights violation in the present case is not of Robert George’s free-speech rights: it’s of the academic-freedom rights of whatever group invited him. There are good second-order reasons (to do with social pressure for cancellation) to create a no-disinvitation norm, but if George had announced a couple of weeks before the event that he’s bored of campus illiberalism and would prefer to talk on the life cycle of the Triceratops, and the group who invited him chose to rescind the invitation and invite someone more on-topic, I don’t think anyone would have been wronged.

I also don’t think it’s inherently wrong for a (private) educational institution to adopt a different and more restrictive speech norm (though I’m not sure it would then justify the name ‘university’). High schools and officer training corps and religious institutions might have good reason to. If someone wants to set up a college with an explicit ‘no right-wing speakers’ policy, and thinks they can attract students and faculty, they should be allowed to. (I think it would be a terrible idea, but things shouldn’t be disallowed just because I think they’re terrible ideas.)

I don’t think I am saying anything very new or interesting here, incidentally.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

DW: I’m claiming that a university creates that right when it establishes the sorts of free-speech policies that universities normally create, and that once it’s created that right, it and its members have an obligation to respect and enforce that right. 

This is your key claim, and you may be right, but I would need to be convinced. I think you would agree that it is too simplistic to think that the university can require of its members whatever it wants to require because its members are free to leave if they don’t like the requirements. Also, the strength of the contractual rights created is not clear. Many don’t take contractual rights of this sort as seriously as others because of the inequities involved in who has the power to make the rules. Also, do students have an obligation to follow their university’s free speech policies or merely to accept the consequences of not following them? I haven’t thought through these issues in a serious way, but they strike me as difficult ones.

Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Kaila Draper
7 months ago

do students have an obligation to follow their university’s free speech policies or merely to accept the consequences of not following them?” Both. When students matriculate, they are agreeing to whatever codes of conduct are in the student handbook or whatever. That both requires you to comply _and_ accept the consequences of failing to comply. If you choose to matriculate at a hyper-religious school with a no-dating rule, you can’t act put-out that that you’re not allowed to date, and you should refrain from dating, and also ought to know you can be expelled if you’re caught dating.

David Wallace
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
7 months ago

That’s too quick. I agree with Kaila Draper that the simple fact that a university comes up with a rule doesn’t create a moral (as opposed to practical) obligation to follow it: there can be unjust rules. (Consider a no-interracial-dating rule, for instance – that one’s probably illegal, but would be unjust even if it wasn’t illegal. Or a no-socializing-with-left-handed-people rule.) It matters to the case at hand that it’s actively good, for a university and for broader society, for universities to adopt robust speech rules.

David Wallace
Reply to  Kaila Draper
7 months ago

All fair points. I’m more confident in the overall recommendations to action (at universities with robust free-speech policies students categorically shouldn’t silence speakers and universities should enforce that; educational institutions sometimes might have reasons not to have robust free-speech policies like that but usually they should) than in the correct decomposition of those recommendations into rights and obligations. It strikes me as a philosophically interesting problem, though well outside my own research competence.

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
8 months ago

In reading this thread, I’m not sure there is a full understanding of what the heckler’s veto is and is not. I’d describe it as a situation where people in attendance make so much noise and so consistently that the speaker is effectively being prevented from speaking, either because he/she literally cannot be heard above the din or because the level of noise is such as to prevent the minimal amount of cognitive focus required to deliver remarks.

People in attendance don’t have to sit in complete meekness and silence. They can laugh “inappropriately,” they can boo after statements they don’t like, they can stand up and turn their backs on the speaker, they can march into the room carrying signs of protest and chanting before the speaker is formally introduced and the event starts, they can perhaps talk back to the speaker (that is not polite and is perhaps better saved for the q&a, but politeness is not the relevant criterion). What those in attendance cannot do is create an atmosphere so full of noise and miscellaneous disruption/distraction that the speaker is effectively prevented from speaking.

David Wallace
8 months ago

I wanted to pull out a strand of an earlier comment that’s worth engaging with but which the forum software makes difficult to pick out in situ. (I appreciate we’re moving a little way from the ‘how to teach this’ question Justin started with, but I don’t think its easy to separate out second-order pedagogy questions from first-order questions of philosophical content.)

Earlier in the discussion, AEG said: “[T]he real question is given that right wing provocation is ALSO a threat to liberal values of respectful discussion and disagreement, how do we respond to its weaponization through campus invited speeches? The reason you have to answer this question is that EVEN IF you can get your students to stop heckling the likes of George, then the right-wing will just invite more horrible speakers like Charles Murray so they can get the response they want. You can’t develop an adequate response to their tactic if you ignore it is even a tactic and pretend it would go away if only the students understood the value of free speech.”

Let’s grant that inviting right-wing speakers is an intentional tactic of provocation. (I’m not at all convinced that’s the case here, but clearly it is in some cases.) Tactics are in the service of a goal; what’s the supposed goal? Presumably: to demonstrate publicly that university campuses are hotbeds of left-wing illiberalism where right-of-center ideas may not be discussed and right-of-center speakers are silenced.

But if so, ‘getting your students to stop heckling’ (silencing, rather) is exactly the right tactic, and it really will ‘go away if only the students understood the value of free speech’. If they only silence ‘more horrible’ speakers, you can at least make the case that not all right-wing ideas are off-limits on campus. If you can get them to completely ignore even maniacs like Yiannopoulos and Spencer, you completely prevent the provocateurs’ goal. Conversely, if all right wing speaker of any kind gets silenced, it’s going to be *extremely* hard to avoid the right communicating the message that campus is systematically hostile to right-wing ideas, not least because it will be true.

So: leave aside the more high-minded aspects of free speech and academic freedom. Even in purely strategic terms, I can’t see why one would want to respond to right-wing provocation with anything other than clearly-free-speech-compatible means – protests and counter-programming if you like, though in many cases I think world-wearily ignoring it would work better, especially with the more idiotic voices on the alt-right. (Fires need oxygen to burn.)  

Or rather, I can’t see – *if* the goal is indeed just to respond to right wing *provocation*. Some of the comments here and elsewhere suggest a different goal: to make sure that campus actually *is* a hotbed of left-wing illiberalism where right-of-center ideas may not be discussed and right-of-center speakers are silenced, but to do so without letting the right demonstrate it to the broader public. If that’s the goal, I think it will be difficult in the extreme to achieve. Certainly I hope so, because it’s a terrible goal.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

“Just ignore him, he will get bored” doesn’t work for high school bullies, and it doesn’t work for political agitators. The agitation simply ratchets up until there is a response, or it is everywhere.

We are facing here the same problem we are facing with misinformation on social media. To wit, how do we respond to harmful speech that, for reasons legal, moral, prudential or practical, we can’t or shouldn’t prevent.

That, for the last time, is the issue.

Ignoring it isn’t the answer, and neither is, in the majority of cases, shouting it down. Denying that there is an issue at all — because of some politically blind, hopelessly abstract ideas about the value of speech tout court — is worse.

David Wallace
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

“The agitation simply ratchets up until there is a response, or it is everywhere.”

But what does ‘it is everywhere’ mean? If it means ‘campus will be overwhelmed by vast numbers of speakers advocating right-wing ideas, to the point that other ideas don’t get a look-in’, it’s obviously ridiculous. There aren’t nearly enough plausible speakers; more importantly, there aren’t nearly enough people and groups on campus to invite them (both faculty and students trend strongly left-of-center, to the point that my milquetoast Democratic centrism puts me on the right fringe of most of these conversations); most importantly, universities have effective logistical tools to make sure that one group doesn’t use a disproportionate or unfair amount of lecture and seminar space.

If instead it means ‘everywhere campuses will occasionally have local conservative groups who invite right-wing speakers to their events’, color me unconcerned. (And for those who are concerned, we’re back to my suspicion that the real goal here is not just to respond to right-wing *provocation* but to make campuses a hostile environment for right-wing ideas tout court.)

We are facing here the same problem we are facing with misinformation on social media. To wit, how do we respond to harmful speech that, for reasons legal, moral, prudential or practical, we can’t or shouldn’t prevent.

I think it’s a completely different problem, and in fact that conflating them gets in the way of addressing the misinformation-on-social-media problem. That problem is all about scalability, anonymity, automation: technology has created channels for misinformation to flow very quickly, and for bad actors to manipulate that flow, in ways that are new and dangerous. An in-person talk by a non-anonymous, physically-present speaker to a physically-present audience, by contrast, is about the least scalable form of communication there is.

Denying that there is an issue at all — because of some politically blind, hopelessly abstract ideas about the value of speech tout court — is worse.

Plenty of the points I’ve made in this discussion are indeed abstract (leaving aside their hopelessness) and politically blind, but here we’re actually having a strategic disagreement; quite apart from the principles, I think it is bad *politics* to respond dramatically to right-wing provocation. To spell it out a bit more with an example: abortion rights got mentioned earlier on the thread. In the post-Roe environment, abortion rights are being curtailed and rolled back in states where Republicans control the statehouse and legislature, and protected and reinforced in states where Democrats do; at the federal level, Republicans would plausibly pass a federal heartbeat law if they could, but it’s dead on arrival as long as Democrats control at least one branch of government. So if you support abortion rights then one important way to protect them is to get Democrats elected. And if that’s your goal, you might not want to play along when your political opponents try to increase the salience of campus illiberalism (where their position is popular) at the expense of the first order issue of abortion (where it is not). If your opponent is trying to provoke you, it’s worth at least considering whether responding to that provocation rather than ignoring it serves your interests or theirs.

On the Market
On the Market
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

By “everywhere” I mean throughout society, as voicing a view in an academic setting is one way of building up respectability, and the next step is building outwards from there.

On misinformation: agree to disagree. For me, both are issues about the epistemic environment, but I appreciate that other analyses might be apt as well.

On bad politics: yes, exactly. If you scroll back up to my initial post, you’ll find me lamenting the ineffectiveness of exercising the heckler’s veto, and advocating for focusing our energies on developing more effective responses.

I’ve been agreeing *throughout* with you that the heckler’s veto is overused and only permissible in extremis.

You might have confused my psychological explanation of why students go for extremal measures with endorsement of these measures, while hyperfocussing on my moral claims about right wing beliefs; claims that I neither care to defend, nor take to entail that anyone ought to be silenced.

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  On the Market
8 months ago

Don’t you need to determine what “harmful speech” is before addressing the proper response(s)?

Lu Chen
Lu Chen
Reply to  David Wallace
8 months ago

I am in a superposition of agreeing and disagreeing with this comment. Suppose I belong to one of those groups that can feel threatened by a speech in a realistic scenario, simply ignoring of which would result in the spreading of the ideas and possibly and gradually some actual violence against my group. I would hesitate to adopt the tactic of simply ignoring and also would not like the tactic of hosting a counter-event defending my group’s standing. I genuinely love the spirit of free speech, but don’t trust myself to escape the prisoner’s dilemma and to defend the value and long-term benefit of free speech over the possible, more short-term threat to my group in this imagined scenario.

Grad Student
Grad Student
8 months ago

I guess the answer to the question in the title of the post is first and foremost by teaching undergrads the importance of intellectual modesty, and less politely, by making it clear to undergrads that in most (not all) cases the academic experts they hear are much wiser than they are, so the best thing they can do in any such lecture is to first of all listen with an open mind and then make a critical assessment of the arguments, and try to find the weak spots (even if they agree with the conclusion). Even if they do so, it is likely that the speaker will have a quick reply to their attack on those perceived weak spots, but they still ought to try. In any case, they should completely abandon the notion that they already know in their undergrad level what is the ultimate truth and what are the best reply to each argument in favor of a false conclusion.

In a sense, this discussion is a live example of how this intellectual immodesty is not being eradicated at undergrad level in the US, and remains even until after grad school. If I saw David Wallace engaging with my arguments and disagreeing, I would first of all take some time to think very carefully about the issues and check what I’m probably missing. This is because given David Wallace’s work and expertise, as well as his comments is these less formal philosophy blogs, it’s clear that David is probably much smarter and knowledgeable than I am, and than most other commentators here are. Only after very carefully checking and reaching the conclusion that David is wrong I’ll modestly try to show him that and be prepared to get corrected. But here some people who are so clearly less wise than David are so not used to intellectual modesty, that they don’t even understand how salient the differences in wisdom are for an outside observer. It’s somewhat painful to watch.

As for the question what to do with speakers you disprove who come to speak in campus, the best strategy is almost always: Either ignore, or, consider the chance that they are right and you are wrong, come to their talk, listen very carefully, and then prove them wrong in the Q&A by showing how miserable their argument is. It must be easy to do that, if they are saying such nonsense, right? And if they bombard you with conspiratory information you cannot debunk during a 90 minutes session, it is worth pointing out in the Q&A that this is an anti-intellectual tactic and that 90 minutes session is not the format to verify so many purportedly factual claims, so they are abusing the format. I’m sure you’ll do your fellow students a much better service than by silencing the speaker.

David Wallace
Reply to  Grad Student
7 months ago

I’m flattered! – but I don’t think people should assume they’re wrong just because of who their interlocutor is, and in any case I write blog comments in odd moments when I’m supposed to be doing something else, so I think their wisdom is probably unreliable at best.

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
8 months ago

With respect to Justin’s question about teaching strategies, I have found some surprising and gratifying success in teaching argument mapping. What students report is that the process of extracting an argument from a text and producing an accurate diagram of it – especially when they work on this together, in small groups – gets them to engage with the argument in a much more open-minded, curiosity driven manner than if the primary task they’re given is to decide whether they *agree* with it. I even had a student report to me that long after she took my class, she found that the argument-mapping skills she had learned helped her in her relationship with her boyfriend – because, when they disagreed, she found herself automatically trying to map the arguments that lay behind his position! Anyway, the key thing here seems to be that by focusing on *what the argument is*, rather than *whether it’s right*, students find they’re able to engage with even very controversial positions much more constructively. And they like it!

David Austin
7 months ago

I taught over 200 undergraduates, mostly non-first-year students, during Fall 2018 – Spring 2022 across six sections of a data ethics course that spent four weeks on free speech (and hate speech detection in online fora internationally). I have related research interests dating from the 1990s. In response to the question posed in the heading, I came up with (at least) thirteen suggestions, focused on the US, but I will offer only the most important one here – (0) – and link to the others. (0) is based on over 40 years of teaching at large state (and R1) universities, with over 14 years of experience in administration and about 19,000 students enrolled in the course sections that I taught.

(0) Even if you are tenured and occupy an endowed chair (or couch) check on your institution’s policies AND practices concerning both academic freedom and freedom of speech. Policy statements tend to be vague, so it is prudent to ask for more detailed guidance on practices, elicited with examples of your anticipated possible classroom practice.
So, in your inquiry, link to Eugene Volokh and Randall Kennedy’s paper and to Elie Mystal’s reply as this can help to encourage a timely response.
In your inquiry, describe the content of Volokh and Kennedy’s paper to avoid surprising the recipient(s).
Ask if your institution would vigorously defend your assigning both Volokh and Kennedy’s paper and Mystal’s reply as required student readings in a course in which freedom of speech is a central topic. (An exemplar of a non-vigorous defense is given in the linked document.)
Allow for plenty of lead time – a full semester if at all possible. If you do not get a favorable and practically useful reply to your inquiry in writing weeks before the course begins – maybe you are simply referred to the institution’s published policy statement, one that is perhaps lauded by FIRE – reconsider your plan to discuss freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Tell your students about any failure to acknowledge your inquiry or any failure to provide practically useful guidance – and tell them about any effect on their educations.
Tell your colleagues – at least those in your department – about any failure to acknowledge your inquiry or any failure to provide practically useful guidance. (If you have a reasonable Dean, let them know, too.)

Liam C
Liam C
7 months ago

I would take some contention calling George Alt right, he’s a catholic natural law theorist, not a Pinochet-enjoyer type. I’d also mention that there’s some dispute around distruptions by students. There are some lawyers who dispute that students taking those actions could be considered unconstitutional. So if the situation continues to get worse they could press the legal levers. Personally I find confuscianism offensive, yet I don’t protest every confuscius scholar. I find a lot of academics making excuses for this kind of behavior when it’s for political causes they can recognize and have sympathy for.