To Restore Free Speech, Discipline is Necessary

By | 2018-03-20T15:19:24+00:00 March 20th, 2018|
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Some students at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta have filed a lawsuit against the university, and for a very good reason. They are members of the Young Americans for Freedom, and they allege they’re the victims of discriminatory treatment by the administration.

The facts aren’t complicated. The group invited Katie Pavlich to visit the campus and speak, a reasonable choice given her editorship of TownHall, the right-leaning news site. But Pavlich’s profile promised to spark controversy and, hence, the need for more security. So the administration added an extra $320 in costs for the event and billed the students. YAF was also denied the chance to tap student activity funding to help cover the bill.

It’s a common scenario. A conservative speaker is invited; rumors and threats of protests and shutdowns circulate; schools beef up security; and the sponsoring group is asked to pay. In other words, the students who invited the speaker bear the burden of handling in advance the disruptions that may ensue. If a leftist group pledges to show up and shout out, the student-hosts, who followed all the rules, must pay for the containment of the rule-breakers.

It is hard to tell if the university administration pursues this course because they share the ideology of the disruptors or because they are bureaucrats who just want to make problems go away. The easiest thing for the university bureaucrat would be for the event to be canceled. Either way, though, free speech is lost.

This is why the efforts to pass campus free speech laws in various states are an important development. One version of those bills the work of Stanley Kurtz and the Goldwater Institute. They’ve collaborated with principled legislators such as Georgia State Senator William Ligon to bring those proposals to a vote. (You can read about the Georgia efforts and frustrations here.)

The Goldwater bill aims to:

  • Abolish restrictive campus speech codes and so-called “free speech zones”;
  • Discourage disinvitations of speakers;
  • Allow protests and demonstrations as long as they do not “infringe on the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity”;
  • Discourage schools from taking official institutional positions on public policy controversies;
  • Require that students who break these rules be punished (any student who “has been twice found responsible for infringing upon the expressive rights of others shall be suspended for a minimum of one year or expelled”).

We need a law that guarantees free speech on campus because too many students don’t respect it. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), barely one-third of college students think that the First Amendment should cover hate speech. Less than half of them (46 percent) even know that there is no constitutionally recognized category of “hate speech.”

Given the fuzziness of the meaning of “hate,” those are troubling numbers. To some people, opposition to same-sex marriage is a form of hate. So are objections to transgender bathrooms and pro-life campaigns. Former FBI Director James Comey was shouted down recently by students who viewed his defense of police actions as “hate speech.”

Young people who disrupt and shut down campus events believe if they find a teacher or visiting speaker offensive, they shouldn’t have to listen to him. He shouldn’t even be allowed on campus. Usually, their objections stem from sensitivities over matters of race, sex, gender, religion, politics, and nation. But an open society demands that grown-ups have a thick skin. You have to allow people wide latitude of opinion. So long as they do not incite violence or threaten others, campus speakers have the right to speak.

That’s not an easy lesson to learn. Our basic impulse when we hear an offensive remark is to counterattack, not to debate. Anthropologists sometimes speak of the rise of liberal mores—a marketplace of ideas, religious pluralism, scientific method—as a miracle. We’re more disposed to be tribal than liberal. The company of like-minded persons is more comforting than exchanges with ideological foes.

Higher education plays a crucial role in this preparation. Schools must demonstrate to 19-year-olds how adversaries properly engage. As anyone with kids understands, the learning doesn’t stick unless it is backed by discipline. Adolescents won’t adopt liberal conduct if illiberal conduct lacks consequences.

This brings us to the part of the Goldwater model bill that gives some observers reservations: the requirement that students be disciplined for repeated disruptions and mobbing. Why should the government get involved in university discipline?

Because university administrators have a hard time exercising it. The way in which schools respond to potential shutdowns proves it. They don’t tell the perpetrators, “You shall be punished.” They tell the victims, “You shall pay up.” The core of the problem, I suspect, is that college leaders are uncomfortable in the role of disciplinarian. They want to present a pleasing “brand” in the marketplace; they want outsiders to believe that students at their schools are happy and healthy; they want to avoid litigation and bad publicity.

But in withholding discipline, the administrators only make the problems worse. When they fail to enforce proper limits for students in a whole variety of areas, they aggravate the tensions.

We should help the administrators. If legislatures step in to provide limits to the amount of disruption that schools will tolerate, administrators will likely, though silently, feel relieved. A law requiring punishment will get them off the hook. More importantly, it would educate the more raucous and thin-skinned youths in our midst in the responsibilities of citizenship in a free society.

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About the Author:

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.