The Free Speech Straw Man

The Free Speech Straw Man

At Yale (Thomas Autumn Photography / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on “Free Speech on Campus.” To read contributions by David A. Bell, Jim Sleeper, and Anne-Laure White, click here.

This year, the Right revived a favorite straw man; his name is Free Speech. With each moment that students participated in uprisings, Free Speech’s heart beat a little faster and his spine straightened. According to the talking heads on cable news, he was devastated when students at Yale were asked to celebrate Halloween respectfully or simply asked for universities to consider their fear and anxiety in the face of racist and homophobic threats made against them. But Free Speech didn’t feel sad for too long. He repeatedly found an audience among those who scoffed at calls to improve campus diversity and equity. Free Speech found himself the topic of numerous editorials and think pieces. All in all, Free Speech had a splendid academic year.

For those of us who actually work on college campuses—rather than simply critique them from afar—the complexity of how to build and maintain our communities in the face of ideological and social discord is daunting. We know the arguments for respecting and valuing a myriad of opinions. Universities are supposed to exemplify the free exchange of ideas. But our ideas are only effective when they emerge from substance, not straw. Unlike other public and private spaces, the conversations on a college campus do not occur or grow in a vacuum. The speech that is expressed here travels across the expanse of our schools—from the mind of a student or a professor, into shared residences and libraries, and out into a watchful world, which sees us as either part of the problem or part of the solution.

The lofty goals of higher education and its promise of self-improvement by acquiring knowledge breaks down quickly along the fault lines of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, and citizenship. The words we utter on our campuses, and the actions that surround them, carry the weight of a mutual agreement we share to enrich and illuminate the mind and the self. Yet, so much of what happens in the process of teaching and learning calls these aims into question when we see the deep culture of hostility that makes campuses unsafe, unwelcoming, and sometimes intolerable to some of our students. Student activists—often victims of harassment, bias, and threatening language—occupy buildings not in the name of disarming free speech, but rather to remind colleges and universities that they are rightfully evaluating and critiquing the speech they hear and internalize. The reductionist view that asking for civility, cultural understanding, and discretion on a campus amounts to censorship ignores the fact that all speech is not equally helpful or harmful to achieving a particular goal.

As someone who teaches about race in America, each semester I am confronted with some version of a free speech appeal about the use of racial slurs or why some opinions are seemingly met with resistance and others are not. Students sometimes want to frame these arguments in terms of the rights of individuals. They are correct in that an individual does and should have the right to free speech. Yet, the possession of such rights does not mean protection from scrutiny—whether it comes in the form of disagreement, refusal to listen, or protest.

Even the most well-meaning people—those who do not have a stake in giving life to Mr. Free Speech—believe that the antidote lies in the more benign straw man: Mr. Other Side. This figure is a convenient pawn when ideas are attacked because they are opinionated or adhere to a strong viewpoint. Policing ideas by requiring Mr. Other Side to make appearances suggests that the emotions and the complexity of certain ideas can be soothed by recognition of oppositional or contradictory thoughts. Mr. Other Side—who is often quite kind—is also deceptive. Mr. Other Side is a partner in analysis and deep thinking, but is all too often evoked to avoid controversy or legitimate challenges to ideas. In using this strategy, colleges and universities risk obscuring the ambivalent and treacherous, but perhaps more human space most people exist in—the difficult, not necessarily moderate, middle. In this place of contention and inconsistency, we find the true treasure of free speech—not dogma, not certainty, but the product of an engaged, intellectual process that emerges when conflict is not avoided but understood as the price of truly free speech. Each campus has to decide if regulating free speech is the best choice for its own community. But regardless of how schools decide this question, our educational institutions must resist the pressure to merely react to the empty defense of free speech.

Marcia Chatelain is associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of the book, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration and hosts Office Hours: A Podcast.

Return to the forum to read contributions by David A. Bell, Jim Sleeper, and Anne-Laure White.