Debate | Are Colleges Overprotecting Their Students? | Yes

Debate | Are Colleges Overprotecting Their Students? | Yes

November 4, 2019 in 2019 November-December, Politics
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Do universities overprotect their students from challenging ideas?

Yes, they do, and it’s been going on for a while. I’m a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, but I have been involved in representing students and occasionally professors in trouble since 1967. Starting in the 1980s I noticed that students were being protected rather than challenged. For example, [restrictive] speech codes, something that had been unheard of earlier on liberal arts campuses, suddenly were invoked: Students were admonished not to say certain things that would embarrass or insult other students. Many universities adopted codes punishing speech that purportedly harassed students or was discriminatory. Language now was no longer an accurate expression of what one was thinking; it was more an expression of what the administrators thought students should think. The advent of speech codes to me was the telltale sign that something very fundamental was changing. The university seemed to be taking on the role not of challenging students to think about life and the universe but of protecting them from the realities of life and the universe.

“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.” Read Robert C. Post’s column here.

There are many functions of free speech, including hateful, threatening speech. I believe hateful speech is protected, but it has another crucial function: The only way to find out what a person is really thinking, and how dangerous a person is or can be, is to let that person tell you out of his or her own mouth. And if that person is functioning under a speech code or restriction, you won’t know.

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

One is the presence of deans and administrators who spend their time trying to protect students from insults and harassment. They want college essentially to be a continuation of kindergarten. They don’t want you to be upset. 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.

I don’t make an exception for racist insults. I consider the extreme reluctance of colleges to let people talk frankly about race probably one of the most damaging results of lack of free speech. Most students—not just white kids, but Asians, African Americans, everyone—have been exposed to views in their own communities that are in some way belittling of other races. It’s just a natural result of living in a multiracial society. And one of the principal goals of education is to confront those racist ideas, so by the time students get out of college they are more accepting of human differences. And if these students can’t speak honestly about their feelings concerning race, racism is never going to be challenged, much less wiped out. So these deans trying to protect students are doing exactly the opposite. They’re sending students out into the world unprepared.

Do universities have a role to play in teaching civility?

Not only does the university not have the right, or the power, to educate students in what it thinks is civil or not civil; doing so is contrary to the goal of a liberal arts education. Universities shouldn’t be educating students in personal philosophy or morality. By the time students get to college they are old enough to decide these life issues for themselves. When I got report cards in elementary school, there was a box for “Works and plays well with others.” But when you’re in college, there should not be such a metric. Students cannot have a successful liberal arts education if they are discouraged from expressing themselves fully and frankly and occasionally insulting or disturbing their classmates. Education without disturbance is not really education.

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

It is not the role of a college administrator even to suggest—never mind mandate—limits to student speech, or to say, “You may be free to say this, but it’s really not a good idea.” I think it’s a form of censorship. For an authority figure to say “I don’t think you should say those things” is an indirect command, really, to the student, because the professor has more power. Professors have to be careful that they observe the line between teaching and indoctrinating.

It’s very important for students to be encouraged to stand up for their right to free speech. It is much easier at public colleges and universities, because the First Amendment applies to all government institutions. It’s harder on a private campus, but the concept of academic freedom does apply—it’s a more diffuse, less clearly defined term than constitutional free speech, so it’s a somewhat harder battle, but it can be fought.

I’m a cofounder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and we take those cases and point out to courts that the college has made a promise, by calling itself a liberal arts college, that students will be allowed to express their views. When they punish what a student says, it’s a breach of that contract.

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

Nope. None. If you start to draw lines, eventually that line is going to be pushed further and further into abject censorship. The purpose of a liberal arts education is that for four years, you are not constrained—you can’t punch anyone in the face, but you can unleash your views on them.

How should universities handle anti-Semitism?

I have always thought that it was a very bad idea, not only on college campuses but outside, to penalize the expression of anti-Semitic views. I have always wanted to know who hates me and who doesn’t. If there’s a rule that bars the expression of anti-Semitic thought, I won’t know. That’s a very good example of the functionality of free speech.

Harvey Silverglate is a lawyer and cofounder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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