Speak Freely (with Keith E. Whittington)

Keith E. Whittington joins us to discuss his book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

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Keith E. Whittington joins us this week to discuss his new book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. Whittington argues that universities must protect and encourage free speech because vigorous free speech is the lifeblood of the university.  We discuss free speech on campus, the use of trigger warnings and how universities can promote freedom of thought and ideological diversity.

Further Readings/References:

Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

More work by Keith E. Whittington

Campus Freedom - Free Thoughts Podcast

Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate


Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Keith Whittington. He’s the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of the new book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.
Welcome to Free Thoughts.

Prof Keith W: Thank you so much.

Aaron Powell: You say at the beginning of your book that the problem of free speech on college campuses, quote, “… is not new but is newly [00:00:30] relevant.” What makes it newly relevant?

Prof Keith W: I think it’s newly relevant in part because, I think we’re seeing more episodes, although it is a little tough to tell, whether the episodes are actually increasing or they’re just more visible and we’re aware that there are more episodes over time. I think there certainly is some ideologies represented on campus that are very critical of free speech. I think there are a general background of a lot of students really not appreciating the value of free speech and why the principles might matter. [00:01:00] As a consequence, I think their commitment to free speech is not as strong as we might hope for.
There are some I think particular variations of the current free speech problem that are distinctive. Some of the problem may be a little more important than it might have been, say, 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s also true I think we should be cautious and recognize this isn’t a unique threat to the republic. It’s not like we’ve never experienced students who are intolerant before or, for that matter, experienced Americans who are sometimes intolerant before.

Trevor Burrus: What sort of past university [00:01:30] free speech … You write about some instances in the book, and it wasn’t always liberals against conservatives, correct? It used to be the other way around [inaudible 00:01:39] that it’s been going for a while.

Prof Keith W: It often used to be the other way around. In the 19th century universities were very closed off institutions. Gradually it’s changed toward the end of the 19th century. Through much of their early history, universities were very conservative institutions, often religious institutions, and didn’t view themselves [00:02:00] as necessarily skeptically searching for the truth, open to controversial new ideas and unconventional thinking. That changed in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. Even still, across the 20th century, universities were often not as open as we might like.
The pressures came from various places. Often they came from outside universities, so from parents and alumni and from politicians. Campus administrators were often relatively conservative [00:02:30] compared to the students. You often did see campus administrators, partially out of their own beliefs, but partially in response to worries about what will parents think and that kind of stuff, really trying to suppress students who were often on the left but maybe just sometimes culturally and socially on the left, so students who were too profane or talked about sex too much or various things like that or sometimes faculty, and campus administrators would try to shut that down out of a [00:03:00] concern about protecting the brand, as they understood it. It was a somewhat different kind of censorship and motivated by somewhat different concerns, but in some ways it’s kind of familiar.

Aaron Powell: How much of these concerns or I guess the activities and behavior that are leading to these concerns, unique to universities? How much of this is I guess a problem of the universities versus just the universities are representative of the culture as a whole, because we have, so we have left wing students protesting speakers on campuses right now, but we also [00:03:30] have the right in this country has become very hostile to free speech. They’re just not doing it on universities as much. Are they just a symptom of a broader problem?

Prof Keith W: Right. I think in lots of way they are a symptom of a broader problem. I think of this as being a larger problem of the culture and the society, which is why I think it’s important for not just students and faculty and campus administrators to come to a better understanding about the principles of free speech and what it means to have a civil society, but it’s important for parents [00:04:00] and alumni and general voters and politicians to have a better appreciation for those liberal values as well, in part because they express their intolerance on a college campus but they also express their intolerance in lots of other places and contexts as well. Universities are particularly visible episode of a kind of conflict, I think is a broader societal conflict, that we should be concerned about in general.
It’s also true that universities I think are an [00:04:30] important site in American society for venting controversial ideas, that we want universities to be places where people can explore things outside the mainstream in various ways. People who are hostile to that then have a particular interest in sometimes trying to capture those institutions and make sure that only their unconventional ideas find a home there, but others also have an interest in trying to shut that down precisely so those institutions can’t explore unconventional [00:05:00] and controversial ideas.
I think it’s important for the vibrancy of American society ultimately to have institutions playing that kind of role that they’re trying to carve out for themselves, of they’re going to be places where ideas are going to be taken very seriously. They’re going to be places where ideas can be explored that may not be in the mainstream more generally and that students can get exposed to ideas there, but also a place where people can make mistakes intellectually and learn from them. Those [00:05:30] are all important things that we should want to value at universities and try to preserve.

Trevor Burrus: Can liberal societies, liberal values, support the speech of people who would like to tear those values down? Is there inconsistency there? If they in fact won, then all of these principles would go away.

Prof Keith W: Sure. I think it’s a problem in liberal theory and how to think about how much do you tolerate the intolerance, but it’s also a genuine political [00:06:00] and social problem in some contexts, what you do on the extremes. I think there may be circumstances and cases where you have to reevaluate, depending on the particular situation that you’re in.
For example, I teach, among other things, free speech, to college students, and among the kinds of court cases I put in front of them to think about are blasphemy cases from the United States in the 19th century. Most people, of course, don’t think that we ever had blasphemy [00:06:30] laws, let alone blasphemy cases, in the 19th century. What’s also striking is courts generally upheld blasphemy convictions in the 19th century.

Trevor Burrus: This is just saying, “Goddamn” or something?

Prof Keith W: All kinds of things, including things like, “Jesus wasn’t really the son of God.”

Trevor Burrus: Heresies too?

Prof Keith W: Exactly, so all kinds of things, including standing outside people’s church services and screaming at them that, “You’re all sinners and you’re worshiping at the wrong church.” There’s a wide variety of things that could get yourself charged under these kind of provisions at the time. It’s a little shocking, [00:07:00] given expectations about what constitutional law looks like in the 21st century, that judges thought it was perfectly consistent to have blasphemy convictions and to have the First Amendment, for example, in place.
Part of what I try to get students to think about is that those things were often justified not on the grounds of, “We have to protect the truth of God, and we ought to marshal the state in support of that.” Instead the argument was, “These people are disrupting the public peace. If you stand outside a church and say bad things [00:07:30] about the things that people in that church believe, you’re going to start a fight, and the way that the state should intervene in order to prevent that disturbance of the peace from occurring is to whisk away the person that’s causing the disturbance by saying the things that people are going to be offended by.”
That was the way the law generally worked until, and not only in this context of blasphemy, but another context as well, that if you had a provocative speaker, the concern was somebody’s going to have a fight with that provocative speaker, and the person who ought to be prosecuted for it is the speaker, not the person who wants to throw the punch.
The challenge [00:08:00] for students is to think about, if you imagine yourself living in a society in which it’s genuinely the case that people are going to haul off and start hitting each other on the basis of what people are saying to each other, what is the right legal rule to have in that kind of context, and do you, as a judge, for example, have to take really seriously the problem of how are we going to have a peaceful society in which people are all on the edge of throwing punches all the time, or worse, right?
That’s a genuine problem I think in some social contexts, and so part of what I think we’ve gained over the course [00:08:30] of American history is we’ve shifted the burden. We’ve told people, “It’s not okay to throw a punch even if you …” You shouldn’t punch the Nazis, even if you find them extremely provocative and offensive and disturbing. In the 19th century, we said, “Well, it’s natural to throw the punch, and so …”

Trevor Burrus: Much more honor society kind of thing.

Prof Keith W: It was more of an honor society. We accepted violence as being a more everyday part of society in common, and I think it’s a genuine advance that we don’t think that way anymore. Instead, we put the burden on people to [00:09:00] say, “Look, you should control yourself.”

Trevor Burrus: Chaplinsky, what did he call them, “Damn fascists?”

Prof Keith W: Exactly right.

Trevor Burrus: The court ruled that that wasn’t protected speech because clearly you’re going to have to sock someone in the nose if you call them a damn fascist.

Prof Keith W: Right, so Chaplinsky is an important case from the early part of the 20th century. It characterizes so-called, “fighting words” as not being protected by the constitution and specifically by the First Amendment. That general notion of fighting words was something, it’s given new form in Chaplinsky, [00:09:30] but it was something that was recognizable under the law previous to that.
In Chaplinsky’s case, it’s representative of the complication that Chaplinsky was a Jehovah’s Witness. He was a sidewalk preacher, would say controversial things that people found deeply offensive, because he would criticize their religion, and he’d go in neighborhoods precisely in order to criticize people’s religions, and people get hot under the collar about it. In this particular case then, not only were people getting hot under the collar about what he was saying about the religion, but then when the cops tried to drag him away, [00:10:00] he started calling the cops fascists, and the cops says, “Well, now you’ve gone too far,” and charged him with a crime as a consequence.
Chaplinsky raises then both those questions, and people want to say, “Well, fighting words. We shouldn’t protect that under the constitution,” and the court since then has really backed off that, and so it’s not clear there’s anything left of that initial move. People who find themselves attracted to that notion, fighting words are unprotected, you have to think seriously about, how do you feel about somebody like Chaplinsky, the sidewalk preacher [00:10:30] who says things people find offensive, and people are worried he might start a fight and therefore he’s on the wrong side of the law on that basis, and he went to call the cops names, and the cops find that offensive.
That’s what the court was concerned about suppressing there. If you really think that fighting words aren’t protected by the constitution, you should come to grips with the fact that you’re okay with the idea that if you call the cops a pig, they can arrest you and put you in jail for that.

Trevor Burrus: They can do that almost anytime anyway, but …

Prof Keith W: Of course, that’s part of the problem now. [00:11:00] The courts I think have been increasingly clear and there have been subsequent cases where cops continue to try to arrest people through the sixties and seventies, for example, on the basis of calling them names, and the courts were increasingly carving away at that and saying, “That’s protected speech. You’re allowed to do that.” What we now find ourselves in, I think it’s a legal regime, where the courts say, “You can’t actually prosecute somebody,” but that doesn’t necessarily prevent the police on occasion from arresting you and [00:11:30] throwing you into the [inaudible 00:11:31] for a few hours before you come out.
Actually, there’s been cases that are saying on flag burning, for example, even after the court said flag burning is constitutionally protected, there still have been instances of the police will arrest somebody for burning the flag, in part because they’re worried about communities reactions and other kinds of things, but they won’t prosecute you, because they know they can’t make a prosecution stick, but they nonetheless can take you out of circulation for a little bit.

Aaron Powell: This concern grounded in provocation, [00:12:00] I wonder how much that gets to answering something I’ve been curious about, which is, campuses have been … This gets framed as these left wing students are rejecting ideas that they disagree with, but campuses have been left wing … That’s not a new feature, but when I was in college in the late nineties and early 2000’s on a very left wing campus, I don’t recall any instances of speakers [00:12:30] being dis-invited because there were threats of protests and so on and so forth.
One of the things that strikes me as different now is that the bolder campus Republicans or other more conservative groups, they would invite speakers, but they weren’t inviting speakers expressly in order to provoke, like, speakers who had nothing to contribute to a debate and exchange of ideas other than being provocative, and so is that one of the things that’s changed? Is that [00:13:00] what’s caused it, or are there other things going on that’s made this a problem now?

Prof Keith W: I think it’s a little hard to tell, because we just don’t have enough empirical evidence to know for sure. I went to college a little earlier than that. I was in college in the late eighties. We didn’t have those kind of episodes on the college campus I was on either. I suspect that one thing that was happening was that there were places where people were being dis-invited and shouted down. It just wasn’t getting reported in the same way.
We were less aware of the extent to which it happened, because it’s also true now that you could be on any average [00:13:30] college campus and never experience in your four years there a single instance of somebody being dis-invited or shouted down, because it’s not that common, but it does happen and happens a fair amount across the country as a whole. Now we’re very aware of how often it happens in a way that might not have been equally true in the nineties or the eighties, for example.
It’s a little harder to know whether it’s actually happening more. I think these things do probably go in waves a little bit too. There were instances of people being shouted down in the sixties, for example, that were very visible and prominent episodes of that happening. [00:14:00] It may have been that that went away a little bit in the eighties and nineties, for example, and now is making a comeback to some degree.
On the other hand, I wrote for a conservative college paper, for example, and that conservative college paper was routinely vandalized and thrown away and destroyed by liberal students on college campus at the time. We didn’t have shouting down episodes, but we had plenty of other episodes of efforts by, in that case, the political left, to try to suppress speech. Those things are persistent.
I think partially there’s also [00:14:30] a sort of international left wing movement that has embraced what was called in Europe no platforming kind of positions that encourages dis-invitations and disruptions of speech. That was very common in Europe and in England, for example, and I think now it’s migrated to the United States. To some degree, I think we’re seeing tactics and ideas about how to suppress speech and under what circumstances and what ways that people in other countries were dealing with before [00:15:00] we had to deal with them here. I think that’s grown.
Then, as you say, I think there’s this other issue of groups on campus and off campus that are funding and encouraging speakers to come to campus precisely to rile people up and try to provoke people. There’s a business model that’s, on what to exploit, that they get attention, and it’s good for them to ultimately have their speeches disrupted, and so they’re probably happy to have it happen. I think that’s a relatively new phenomenon is too.
There are people who were controversial, including some people that were well [00:15:30] outside the mainstream, get themselves invited to campuses in earlier periods in American history, including the eighties and nineties, for example, but not quite in the same way and with not quite the same intent as what we would see I think with some of the people now.
I think we also have this really problematic dynamic between some people on the right who want to be as provocative and stick a finger in people’s eye and people on the left that are more than happy to rise to the bait.

Trevor Burrus: How should we feel about trigger [00:16:00] warnings? We talked about the fighting words and that there’s some sort of line between calling someone, “A damn fascist” or something else that would make someone punch you, and then other things that disrupt and things that make people very upset, and now we have this trigger warnings thing. Of course, the conservatives love to make fun of the snowflakes on college campuses and all this stuff. Maybe it was the case that for a very long time we didn’t take triggering seriously enough. Is [00:16:30] that something we should endorse or at least be wary, maybe endorse and be wary about?

Prof Keith W: Yeah. I think this notion of trigger warnings and safe spaces is what gives rise, and particularly this idea of a snowflake generation that’s particularly sensitive and delicate and can’t confront for the hard reality of the world kind of thing. Once you dive into looking at the arguments surrounding trigger warnings and safe space and the people who are advocating for those kinds of notions, there’s a kernel of something genuine and real in that that we all take seriously.
[00:17:00] In the context specifically of trigger warnings, there’s a genuine concern that some people might find things not merely offensive but in fact mentally and emotionally disabling in a way that can interfere with their educational progress. It’s unfair to expose those students to things in a way that they can neither accommodate nor anticipate that’s going to take place. The problem is that … and so there’s a genuine therapeutic core.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, like parental advisory?

Prof Keith W: [00:17:30] Right. You might think of course, it’s also a sort of unproblematic in exactly this context of parental advisories and the like, that it’s much more familiar of saying, “You should get a warning as to what you’re about to be exposed to.” In some ways of course in college I think we ought to be doing that. We ought to have a syllabus that tells people what the content of the class is, that tells people what they’re going to be exposed to. I think that standard syllabus doesn’t quite get to the level of detail and specific content warning that people who advocate for trigger warnings [00:18:00] are sometimes looking for.
I think there’s also nothing necessarily problematic about individual faculty members deciding on their own that I should warn students about what they’re about to encounter, because I want to prepare them in various ways for the material they’re about to see on a video, for example, or in a text or a conversation we’re about to have in class. I think that’s totally reasonable and appropriate.
The thing that I think that we ought to be concerned about is blanket policy and campus administrator saying everybody ought to adopt these [00:18:30] trigger warnings, even in circumstances where the faculty think it’s inappropriate or unwise, in part, because it will alter how those conversations go in class, but also there’s a real worry that if you have to start including trigger warnings on things, that, one, it will discourage some students from taking classes they otherwise ought to take and from reading materials they otherwise ought to read, that you’ve scared them away from it by attaching a trigger warning to it.

Trevor Burrus: It also seems like it might encourage.

Prof Keith W: It might encourage some too, no, exactly. The video nasty’s phenomenon, right? Once you’ve labeled this as banned in [00:19:00] Boston, then people are going to come rushing out to try to see it. What’s this thing I’ve been banned from seeing? That’s kind of boring, as it turns out. Yeah, there is that, I think.
The other concern, likewise, is if you have to include it on, that there’s a mandatory policy that if you’re going to do certain things, you have to include a trigger warning, that the easier thing to do is, okay, I’ll drop that off the syllabus. I just won’t do that, because I don’t want to deal with the hassle of administrators looking over my shoulder and students complaining about it and all that kind of stuff.
Then you potentially are going to lose some really serious things out [00:19:30] of your curriculum and what universities are covering if everybody is being overly cautious about what they’re willing to expose students for, because they’re trying to avoid controversy in one way or another. As a consequence, it’s a similar worry to worrying about dumbing down the curriculum, but it’s a worry of how do we go to the least common denominator, the least offensive thing possible, and only expose students to that. That’s just a shoddier education than what you would hope [00:20:00] college students are generally going to get.

Trevor Burrus: You mentioned professors reacting to this. [inaudible 00:20:05] that they’re afraid, in the current regime, that they’re afraid of getting a report from a student, getting a report that you did X, Y and Z, whether it’s something totally innocuous or whatever, and that is seemingly sufficient, that’s it. Accusation is guilt and you’re done. Do you think that’s true?

Prof Keith W: I think there are places where that’s really true. I think there are other places where maybe that’s a little less true. [00:20:30] I guess I would say there’s various ways that might play out. One way in which you might imagine worrying about the reaction as a consequence or of self-censoring as to how you do things, is you just worry about the hassle of having to deal with it. Do I really want students camped out in my office? Do I really want students to come screaming at me? Do I really want to worry about students complaining and having to deal with the emails and phone calls or the whatevers?
The more you think that you’re in an environment in which that might [00:21:00] happen, then it just leads you to shy away from anything that you think might deal with it, just because you don’t need that in your life. That’s one kind of concern, people worrying about the environment they’re in and just thinking it’s too much of a hassle, even if there’s no broader repercussions, just this isn’t a thing I need to worry about if I can work my way around it.
The other thing, though, is genuine occasions where you worry that there might be professional consequences to it. If you’re untenured, [00:21:30] if you’re an adjunct who’s working on a semester-by-semester contract, for example, it’s a serious threat if students are lodging complaints against you and objecting to what you’re teaching. For a lot of administrators in lots of places, why should they second-guess that, right? A student complains about somebody. They’re contingent faculty anyway. Fine, we just won’t hire that person again to teach in the future. We’ll hire somebody else. That kind of risk-averseness about people who don’t have larger [tections 00:21:59] and [00:22:00] tenure to their teaching can easily wind up, getting people disciplined and professionally in very consequential ways as a consequence to that.
The other thing I think on some university campuses, the environment is just so bad and sensitive on some of these issues, that even if you’re fully protected by tenure, you might think the consequences are going to be quite dramatic, socially, if not necessarily economically, but maybe in terms of your ability to stay on that campus if you get [00:22:30] too many students upset with you, too riled up, if the administrators get too upset with you.
I’ve talked to faculty on some campuses that see their local environment as poisonous enough. It’s not just this would be a hassle. I think their life would be dramatically messed up if they find themselves in bed in one of those controversies.

Aaron Powell: Are there characteristics of the campuses that seem to make this kind of behavior more or less likely? Is it really small liberal arts colleges have it the worst? Public universities are [00:23:00] better than private? I don’t know, but are there ways, are there things that seem to be going on that predict this?

Prof Keith W: I think it’s [inaudible 00:23:05], because, again, I think we have a data problem of really knowing what’s happening across all these campuses. It’s clear that there are some things that occur on any campus. I don’t think any campus is really immune from it, but it is true that places that seem worse are smaller liberal arts colleges, often relatively elite colleges, although not always. I think in part because they are more humanities-centric at those colleges and humanities [00:23:30] are the places where there’s the most intellectual debate over some of those issues, whereas if you’re in a larger, more complex campus, where a good chunk of your students are business majors or are engineering majors and the like, those students aren’t as interested in those things. They aren’t in classes that’s encouraging that kind of stuff.
That’s a more intellectually diverse campus on certain dimensions that might matter compared to a smaller liberal arts college. I think the small places are just also more homogeneous, and the campus culture [00:24:00] can be more stifling if you’re not careful, and so there are fewer places to hide. If you find yourself in an environment with 4,000 students, and even if it’s only a small fraction of them that are willing to be really vocal and annoying, you may find yourself in a position of saying, “Do I really want to go the next four years having to live in this environment where these 15 students are really mad at me?”
Whereas, I was an undergraduate at a giant state university. Lots of us were anonymous. It’s easy to escape other people. [00:24:30] Your worries are just different in that kind of environment, in an environment in which there may be 4- or 5,000 students.

Aaron Powell: When this stuff is going on at … Pick a campus where we seem to think that this kind of stuff is bad, whether it’s a broadly cultural characteristic of the students or a handful of essentially hecklers veto style bad apples. If it’s really concentrated among bad apples, why are administrators so willing [00:25:00] to capitulate? Why can’t they just say, “Look, if you’re offended by this or you’re having a problem with this or you’re going to be disruptive, maybe our university is not the place for you.”

Prof Keith W: I think in part we’re going through a moment where we’re trying to figure out how many bad apples there are, and so there is some uncertainty, I think genuine uncertainty, among the students themselves but also administrators and faculty, about just how popular are these ideas, how many students feel this way. We’re in a bit of a feeling out process.
I actually think that in most cases it’s a relatively small set of students that [00:25:30] are most committed to some of these illiberal ideas, but there is genuine uncertainty about how big that population really is. I think we’re now going through a process, and I hope in part this book is encouraging it, of trying to speak to, to borrow a phrase, the silent majority, on a college campus, where most people aren’t committed to those ideas, and as a consequence, can be led to say, “Look, you don’t have to go along with that. You can pull back.”
You [00:26:00] can do some of that, I think. There’s some question of teasing apart how many people really are talking about it, and are they isolated minority, et cetera. For some campuses, that minority, though, is big, and then it becomes much more troubling. I worry that a place like Middlebury, for example, may find itself in that kind of situation, where in fact the number of students who are really committed to those ideas are quite large.
Sometimes they’re in campus leadership, and so it’s not just that these are easily isolated individuals that you can punish and then move on. Instead, it’s really picking fights with large contingents [00:26:30] of your campus population, including campus population that may be supported by sympathetic faculty and sympathetic administrators. That’s a tough fight for people to pick.

Trevor Burrus: Aaron mentioned, we went to Boulder together, and one of the things, classes that we’d like to take, we took a fair amount of literary criticism classes. We enjoyed them. They’re like a game and listen to some interesting stuff and you can read some [Precoe 00:26:55] every now and then, which is not the worst thing ever. Probably not historically accurate, but it’s not the worst thing ever.
In [00:27:00] that world, this is 15 years ago, I saw that there was a ideology of how the power structures of the world were distorting it and oppressing people. One of those parts of those power structures was speech, just the words that we use to describe things embedded in there, the patriarchy and race stuff, and all these things. That I think is some of what is being said when they say words are violence and [00:27:30] this is going to be a problem, and we need to stop people from saying these things, because an entire system of violence has been put up around people, and words are part of that.
They want action and they want people to stop talking about things that have created a bad world, in their view, and that’s what they view as hate. How should we respond to that viewpoint? The world has been power structures that weren’t very friendly to the minorities for a very long time, and [00:28:00] trying to reform that might require talking in a different way. Should we say, “No, no, no. We should just say everything we want,” or should we accept some of their premises?

Prof Keith W: I think it’s perfectly reasonable to accept some of their premises. I’ve learned a lot from Precoe. I encourage people to go read Precoe and others along that path. Likewise, in researching the book, for example, spent a lot of time reading people who were advocating for trigger warnings, which turns on a different kind of argument.

Trevor Burrus: All in the same general … yeah.

Prof Keith W: In the same general path, but more generally, [00:28:30] I often find the things that seem very pernicious ideas or silly ideas, that if you start digging into them and find the people that are most serious about them, there’s often something interesting there, and there’s a real starting point in those ideas that you ought to take seriously.
That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right, but it often means that what you’re seeing expressed most often is sort of a crude version of it or a [bolderdized 00:28:56] or exaggerated version of it that is being applied in simplistic ways. [00:29:00] That ought to be resisted, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily ought to throw away the baby with the bath water. It’s a challenge to find the baby sometimes. Sometimes there’s an awful lot of dirty bath water, but I think we ought to, and especially those of us on college campuses, who are trying to take ideas seriously, we have an obligation to try to really think about the ideas in play here.
Then having explored those ideas and try to come to grips with them, you want to think about, “What are the good parts of this, and how do we go about trying to [00:29:30] salvage those good parts and try to reconcile them with the larger set of liberal structures that you think are important, and can they be reconciled?” If you think they are serious ideas but maybe not necessarily good ideas, then you want to think about how do we resist those ideas and encourage people to turn away from them in various ways.
I think that’s the challenge confronting us on some of these issues, that the idea that words are violence comes out of an intellectual tradition, I think is a serious intellectual tradition. It [00:30:00] makes some valuable and important points about how the social world is constructed and how power gets exercised within it. We shouldn’t be too dismissive of that. On the other hand, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the metaphor and lose sight of the fact that the words themselves are not actually violence.

Trevor Burrus: That violence means a thing, and violence is not violence.

Prof Keith W: Exactly. We ought to be able to distinguish these two things. Moreover, then we ought to talk seriously about how do we go about changing that. Even if you think that there are coercive social structures, for example, [00:30:30] that built up in part through certain kinds of linguistic discourses, from a classical liberal perspective, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to think and something one ought to take seriously. Then you ought to think about how do you effectively dismantle that.
There, I think we’re going to have lots of disagreements between those of us who come out of a more of a classical liberal tradition and those who are coming out of certain other traditions, who might think the best way of dismantling that is to have the state smash it in various kinds of ways. From a classical liberal perspective, [00:31:00] you might think, there are lots of problems, and it’s giving the state a great big hammer to smash things with, because …

Trevor Burrus: It will be used against you next.

Prof Keith W: It’s going to be used against you next, right? We ought to worry about that. That’s very much my worry in this concern. My starting point is not to say, “Oh, don’t be stupid. Of course, words don’t matter.” No, words matter. They matter a lot. We don’t take them really seriously, and so we ought to worry about these things. The question is how do you respond to it. What’s the best way of moving forward given those concerns?
I’m committed to thinking the best [00:31:30] way of dealing with that is not by empowering censors with a lot of power to suppress things, not by shouting down speakers, but to expose ideas to critical scrutiny and engage them. In the long run, we’ll be better off with the consequence of that.

Aaron Powell: One of the things that seems to motivate at least some of this, and you see it not just in the we’re going to shut down conservative speakers on campuses, but like the gay wedding bake shop case, is almost what I’ll call [00:32:00] a culture war victory lap, that the left has won the culture wars. They’re basically over and the left won, and so now the left …

Trevor Burrus: Rock and roll is here to stay [crosstalk 00:32:14].

Prof Keith W: [crosstalk 00:32:15]

Aaron Powell: Yeah. Now they’re just grinding it in, that there isn’t a motivation there. They’re not about protecting people. They’re not about protecting people from triggers or creating a good environment but just putting their boots in the necks of the social conservatives [00:32:30] who they battled for so long. If that’s what’s going on, that seems like that’s a harder thing to fight back against, because you can’t say, “Well, we need free speech or exchange of ideas,” because people are just, it’s just gloating. Then, on the other hand, maybe they get that out of their system.

Prof Keith W: I think there’s a little bit of that on both sides. I think there are people on the right who, and sometimes they think they have legitimate grievances, but for whatever reason, they think that I want to see liberal tears, and I want to stick my thumb in the eye, and [00:33:00] that’s going to make my life better and more pleasant in various kinds of ways if I do that. I think, similarly, there are people on the left that are genuinely interested in saying, “No, no, I want to rub it in and I want to show that you aren’t going to be tolerated around here.” That will make them feel better about their position in various kinds of ways.
Some of that’s natural at one level. It’s natural to the cultural war in general, people are going to feel that way. In some ways, it’s natural I think to college campuses, because students [00:33:30] of that age are likely to be a little more enticed to want to behave that way.

Trevor Burrus: Juvenile delinquents, basically, yeah.

Prof Keith W: It comes with the territory. There’s a reason why provocative speakers are popular on college campuses, right?

Trevor Burrus: Sometimes you just want to burn things down, especially when you’re 19 years old, yeah.

Prof Keith W: Sometimes you just want to burn things down, right? That’s totally right. We should recognize that this, and it’s one reason why these things are kind of endemic and they repeat on college campuses and you have to accept the fact that [00:34:00] these are sort of ongoing efforts to how do you deal with this. To some degree, it is a management problem rather than somehow we’re going to drive it out and it will never happen again. Instead, it is a question of, when it rears itself up, how best do you deal with it so that it’s not too disruptive, and the main activity of the university can continue.
I think it’s also true that we want to be able to separate, and we should encourage other people to separate, those who are acting in bad faith from those who are acting in good faith. There are some people who [00:34:30] are, who hold ideas that we might think are genuinely provocative, but they are genuinely trying to advance those ideas, and they’re trying to get you to think about what they take to be serious and important ideas. That’s one thing, right? Those people may be wrong. You may find them dangerous even in the kinds of ideas they hold. That’s one kind of person. In some ways, you want to encourage those people on college campuses, because at least those people are grappling with ideas, and you can engage them.
There are [00:35:00] other people who are acting in just bad faith, that they want to fly under the banner of, whether it’s inclusivity on the left or free speech at the moment on the right, but what they really want to accomplish is something else. Those people I think you do have to deal with a little differently and recognize what they’re going to do.

Aaron Powell: If this is, in part, a management problem, how does management start to fix it?

Prof Keith W: I think partially you do want good rules in place on college campuses that [00:35:30] are consistent with free speech principles in general but are trying to coordinate the use of the space in a way that allows everybody to conduct their own activities without too much disruption from others, and sometimes you need to sanction and discipline people who violate those rules in reasonable ways. It’s also a question of trying to educate students about what it is they’re getting into and how they ought to behave on college campuses and try to lead [00:36:00] them to behave in better ways.
For example, I think one reason why Princeton, where I teach, has not had very many of these kinds of problems, knock on wood, so far, hopefully it won’t in the future either. I think partially it helps that our faculty and our administration is deeply committed to free speech principles, and they’ve been clear about that, and they’ve articulated it, and students understand that, and faculty and administrators understand that, and so everybody’s on the same page in some ways, or at least understands what the page is, and behaves accordingly.
It [00:36:30] helps I think that we have, for example, people who are serious thinkers on both the left and the right, who can treat each other respectfully, can articulate those ideas.

Trevor Burrus: Like Robby George and Cornell? Robby George and …

Prof Keith W: Robby George and Cornell West, for example. Peter Singer, who’s a very controversial person on campus, who’s mostly from the political left, is on Princeton campus as well. As a consequence, students can see it’s possible to be a serious conservative, for example, by looking at Robby George and say, “Okay, well, this person has ideas that I disagree with dramatically, but he’s a serious person. He’s [00:37:00] nice and polite and civil, and you can actually engage him, and he’ll think about problems and you can have a conversation,” and you can learn something from that person, right?
That’s a really useful thing for students to see. If, instead, they think what it means to be a conservative is a Richard Spencer or a Milo or the average Fox news celebrity, that’s a very different image in their head about what it means to invite somebody like that to campus and to tolerate them and those kind of things. You want to expose [00:37:30] students to serious people with serious ideas who are capable of talking in good faith and even if you disagree with them. I think on the political right, we’ve lost that a little bit by having people, for example, trying to bring in people who are only provocative and aren’t really articulating good ideas in a reasonable way.
One of the things I valued when I was in college was William F Buckley came to campus one time, for example, who I got to go see. I admired Buckley in lots of ways. I had disagreements with him in various kinds of [00:38:00] ways, but he was a serious person and capable of engaging in a serious conversation, could give a good speech in a relatively entertaining way that both the left and the right could learn something from experiencing. Bringing in William F Buckley to campus is a different kind of thing than bringing a Milo to campus, right? We should be making more efforts to bring the equivalents of William F Buckley to campus and less effort to bringing the equivalent of Milo to campus.

Aaron Powell: Then should student groups that invite people like Milo be disciplined [00:38:30] for that? Rather than saying, “We’re not going to let Milo come and speak,” you say, “Look, this is not how adults behave. You don’t invite people like this?”

Prof Keith W: I think it’s an educational process. I think you need to engage in them and talk to them seriously, and hopefully they can find faculty, administrators who they respect. Part of the problem I think on college campuses is there are not a lot of role models at that level, and so instead those students often feel isolated and under siege, and they don’t trust anybody in adult roles [00:39:00] on campus, for example. They think they’re all out to get them, and so they don’t want to listen to them.
In some ways, you need serious engagement and to try to bring them to a point where they can see, “Okay, look, it’s not in your long-term interest to bring in somebody just for the sake of being provocative. Maybe there’s better people we could bring in who are going to be interesting and useful and that you can appreciate.”
I think ultimately that’s a educational process more than it ought to be a process of disciplining. [00:39:30] Maybe there are circumstances where it’s appropriate to try to discipline students for something that they’ve done on the front, but I think that ought to be extremely rare, and it’s hard actually to even think of examples where that wouldn’t be a sensible strategy.

Trevor Burrus: In the changing university environment, and there’s a lot of discussion about the meaning of universities now and whether or not it’s always good to go to university, and there’s concerns about student loans, so we’ve seen big changes, and maybe a little bit more savviness or [00:40:00] discernment when picking a university.
At the University of Missouri, we saw an unbelievable dip in enrollment to the point of closing two or three dorms, I think, 30 percent after they had their highly prominent little protest. In so far as parents are deciding to send their kids to different college, could it be the case that we eventually get to this point, because you write a lot of the book about what universities are, but if some of these places …
Oberlin pops into mind, because they’ve been on the top of these lists for a very long time, [00:40:30] that maybe they just don’t want to be universities. Maybe they want to be something more like liberty … like it’s a religious consciousness raising endeavor. We’re not going to have free and open inquiry here, and you’re going to know it. That’s going to be on our mission statement. If you go to Liberty University, you’re also not looking for complete free and open inquiry, so the same thing.
Then Princeton is going to say, “That’s what you’re going to get here,” so actually that this will resolve itself in the sense that people will go to those universities choosing that, and [00:41:00] it will either be an open one or not. Maybe those closed ones are not really universities anymore.

Prof Keith W: I actually think that’s fine in that sense. It’s okay for me. I think one of the nice things about the American educational environment is it has a wide diversity of different kinds of institutions. They have different cultures. They do different things. They pursue those missions differently, including religious institutions that are pursuing a very distinctive mission. It’s a little different than the one I describe of primarily being a truth-seeking institution on the model, a secular research institution like Princeton.
[00:41:30] If a university or college like Oberlin, for example, wanted to self-consciously embrace that identity and say, “We’re the equivalent of a faith-based institution, except our faith is social justice,” for example, “… and we’re going to organize everything around that, and we’re going to have boundaries on intellectual tolerance and intellectual inquiry on our campus on the basis of that,” then give it a shot.
If students want to go there, that’s fine. I wouldn’t encourage it. I wouldn’t want to send my kid there. I wouldn’t want to teach [00:42:00] there. What’s striking about a lot of these places, of course, is they don’t want to brand themselves that way. Their administrators won’t say that’s what they do. Their faculty don’t say that’s what they do. Certainly, friends that I have who are on faculties at institutions like that are all very concerned, precisely because they didn’t think that’s what they signed up for. There are some people on campuses, say basically that’s what this college ought to be. Then there’s a whole set of people who say, “Wait a second. Since when?”
I think those will be worse institutions. [00:42:30] That’s not the model of higher education I think we would want to embrace in general. My suspicion is the market demand for that is pretty small, ultimately, but if campuses wanted to brand themselves that way and go that direction, I don’t have anything against them for doing that. I wouldn’t want to teach there, though.

Trevor Burrus: This “free speech crisis …” I’m putting that in scare quotes, as you point out in the book, cyclical, and we’ve discussed today, but it also comes at a time of extreme schismatic political [00:43:00] undercurrent where Donald Trump’s election has been a triggering moment for many people on the left.

Prof Keith W: It’s driven everyone mad.

Trevor Burrus: Yes, driven everyone mad, including Donald Trump. Aside from that, is it different now, because we have all this data about polarization and all these things, and then we have people who say it’s not that bad, but from my perspective it seems pretty bad. One thing that polarization might do is cause people to not understand the other side to the point that they think it’s [00:43:30] a benefit to shut them up. Do those factors make it worse now? What do you see going forward in this free speech discussion if that’s part of the backdrop?

Prof Keith W: I do think that’s part of the backdrop. I think polarization makes it worse on college campuses. I also think that polarization should make us nervous, that the kinds of problems we’re seeing on college campuses could replicate themselves through American society more generally. College campuses, [00:44:00] among faculty, are relatively to the left. For example, the students are more diverse in general ideologically, but the faculty [inaudible 00:44:08] to the left, so they have their own ideological blind spots as a consequence of that.
That creates environments that some students and faculty on the right find less hospitable than they would hope, and it leads people to behave badly in various ways, in part, because they aren’t exposed enough to the other side, and they think the other side is extraordinarily threatening, because they seem [00:44:30] so ideologically distant from their own set of views and perspectives, for example.

Trevor Burrus: And all their best friends, that they’ve never even met one.

Prof Keith W: And all the best friends, I’ve never even met somebody like that, so of course … It’s easy to imagine the most horrible thing about the person from the other side. You imagine, I’ve never seen somebody like that before, and so they must be monsters over there. That’s a problem. It’s a problem for universities. It’s a problem for American society in general, that if we find ourselves in that position, where we imagine people on the other side of the divide must be [00:45:00] monsters, because we hardly ever interact with them, and all the interactions we have are fraught and mostly negative.
Universities I think ought to be a place where we are learning how to work through that, that it’s not going to make the polarization go away, but we have, as a society, to learn how to live with polarization, right? We need to be able to learn how to talk to each other and manage our disagreements and have a reasonable conversation and settle things peacefully despite [00:45:30] those disagreements. I think that’s a looming threat for the United States is we’re dealing with this polarized society more generally, and we’re seeing a microcosm of that on college campuses.
I think one thing that college campuses ought to be contributing to American society is a model of how it is you can grapple with disagreements and learn how to tolerate it and overcome it and move forward productively with it. Instead, we’re at the universities will become the opposite. Instead they will become models [00:46:00] of, yeah, this is how the partisan warfare takes place, and we’re going to shout each other down. We’re going to have fights on the street, and that’s what America’s going to look like.
One reason I wanted to write the book was precisely because I want to encourage not only those of us on college campuses not to behave that way, and we’ve got to figure out a way of moving past these kind of disagreements and living together in a peaceful and productive way, but Americans, more broadly, who are confronting in their own way these kinds [00:46:30] of issues, need to learn it as well.

Aaron Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes, and if you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.