In a new article, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein writes that efforts to pass campus free speech laws are an “important development” given the spate of protests and speaker shutdowns at America’s public universities.
On the state of free speech on campus, Bauerlein writes:
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.
On the rationale for imposing consequences on those who violate others’ free speech rights, Bauerlein writes:
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.
And on the need to impose requirements on universities, Bauerlein writes:
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.
As Bauerlein notes, the Goldwater Institute has authored model legislation designed to restore free speech on campus, which includes incentives designed to encourage students and administrators to respect and protect the free expression of others. You can read more about the legislation at RestoreFreeSpeech.com.