Debate | Are Colleges Overprotecting Their Students? | No

Debate | Are Colleges Overprotecting Their Students? | No

November 4, 2019 in 2019 November-December, Politics
2 Comments

Do universities overprotect their students from challenging ideas?

I’m not sure I like the way the question is framed. Universities are responsible for educating their students, and they should give students the degree of protection necessary to further their education. It is hard to generalize about universities; some may properly protect their students, others may overprotect them.

Generally, universities should make sure that speakers can speak and that all students can listen and respond. The amount of protection called for is a matter of context. Sometimes you have to meet students where they live; sometimes you have to lead them out from where they live. I don’t think any abstract metric is relevant, or that the question is illuminated by talking about free speech rights or the lack of them. It is not a matter of rights at all; it is fundamentally a matter of education.

College is supposed to upset you, but they say college should be a safe space. That’s a term that makes my blood run cold.” Read Harvey Silverglate’s column here.

Take the case of controversial speakers who come to campus. How should universities handle these cases, which come up all the time? First one must ask why any given speaker is coming to campus. Presumably, it is to contribute to the education of the university’s students. If a student group has the budget to invite whoever interests them, then presumably the educational interest is in having students learn to manage such invitations.

Suppose a speaker is controversial to others on campus. Then a tradeoff must be effected between the education of the students who invited the speaker and the speaker’s potentially dysfunctional impact on others.

Part of the mission of higher education is to help teenagers become adults who can function in a democracy. Students need to develop the intellectual equipment to handle ideas with which they disagree. If a speaker has no intellectual views worthy of respect, and the degree of intellectual or even physical harm to third parties is high, a university is facing one kind of situation. But if a speaker is offering comments that deserve intellectual respect—even if the comments may be upsetting to many other students—then the balance may be struck differently.

What are the most serious threats to free speech on campus?

I would deny the basic premise of the question—that the disputes and protests we constantly hear about on college campuses concern threats to First Amendment rights. That’s not correct. What’s at stake in universities is the provision of education, not the exercise of rights. There is a lot of protected expression in universities, but this protection does not typically derive from the First Amendment, but rather, from academic freedom. Protection of academic freedom is explicitly organized around the education of students and the promotion of research. Those seem to me the relevant questions for universities, not what are ordinarily called First Amendment rights.

Do universities have a role to play in teaching civility?

Of course. That’s what restrictive university speech codes are intended to do—foster civility. There are good and bad speech codes, but the overall purpose of any such code must be to facilitate students’ education. A good speech code punishes speech that interferes with that education and permits speech that advances it.

The university context is special, because students have a status that allows the university to regulate them qua students—which is very different from the relationship between a citizen and the state. This is true even at public universities. When I taught at Berkeley, my students might be able to stand up and say whatever they liked in a park, but they could not do that in my classroom.

If administrators express disapproval of an idea, are they suppressing student speech?

No. People who make that argument are confusing the university with the government. If the government expresses the view that something should not be said, it may effectively be imposing a sanction on the speech, and that may be a First Amendment problem. But universities express their ideas all the time. To equate them with government in that sense is a fundamental mistake. Universities have their own distinctive mission; they can speak in ways that support it.

Are there any ideas that have no place in a university?

There are infinite numbers of ideas that have no place in a university. Universities are places where knowledge is researched and expanded, so ideas are judged on competence. If I’m in the astronomy department and I say that the moon is made of green cheese, I won’t get tenure, and that’s perfectly appropriate.

Within political discourse, we tend to accept the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas. Everyone cites Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” But this maxim is totally antithetical to what a university does. Universities don’t judge ideas by their popularity with consumers. Universities are in fact supposed to be insulated from the pressures of public opinion.

How should universities handle anti-Semitism?

It depends what you think constitutes anti-Semitism. Personal attacks should not be tolerated. But denying the Holocaust, for instance, is an offense against competence. It is incompetent history. If it were convincing history, it would not matter that the idea offends Jews.

When I was teaching at Berkeley in the 1990s, the British Holocaust denier David Irving came to speak. He’d been invited by a student group with Middle Eastern funding. Many people thought we should cancel the invitation. I advised against it. Irving was someone whose views could not survive the test of academic exchange. My advice was not that the speech be canceled—after all, students ought to learn to handle issues like this—but that no one should attend Irving’s lecture, because he was not worthy of academic respect. 

Robert C. Post is a law professor and the former dean of Yale Law School.

2 Comments
  • h. g 11:50h, 18 November Reply

    interesting that Hillel has joined the deneier

  • h. gottlieb 11:56h, 18 November Reply

    please explain why “Hillel’s’ stand and the deneiner stand, right to speak differ

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