Two college professors had a fascinating debate last week about whether today’s campus activism limits free speech.
Their conversation was part of the panel “Academic Freedom, Safe Spaces, Dissent, and Dignity,” at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which included professors and administrators from Yale University, Wesleyan University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Chicago. The discussion was moderated by Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg.
The issue of free speech on college campuses has garnered major attention following a string of protests at universities around the country, mainly focusing on racial injustice.
Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, and Michael S. Roth, the President of Wesleyan, had a quick back-and-forth about whether students’ push for increased sensitivity over issues like race and sexual assault endangers free speech.
Carter argued that students need to grow more comfortable with confronting ideas they don’t agree with, while Roth worried about excluding underrepresented viewpoints and called activism as a necessary vehicle for change.
“Academic freedom is enormously important … because you’re talking about the battle of ideas,” Carter said. “You’re talking about why The Aspen Institute is here. The notion that we’re going to start taking ideas off the table because we don’t like them is enormously dangerous and threatens the enterprise.”
Carter cited two roadblocks to freedom of speech on campus and in the classroom.
Colleges are hiring more and more administrators, who don’t come from a background of academic freedom ands are less likely to understand it. And technology makes coming together to advocate easier for students — which can be positive but can also lead to ideas being forcibly shut down.
Michael Roth argued against Carter’s definition of academic freedom — it’s not a free-for-all for people to say whatever they want, he said.
“Even at the benighted Aspen Institute there are some things you don’t put on the table,” he said. “You will always have some things that you refuse to legitimate by calling a subject of debate. “Deep Dive: Are Jews Controlling the Media?” Really? Is the Aspen Institute going to do that deep dive?”
Both Roth and Carter have seen a surge of activism on their campuses over the last few months.
At Yale, students were outraged over a fraternity’s alleged racial discrimination as well as an email from a faculty member explaining that the administration could not police offensive Halloween costumes.
And at Wesleyan, students boycotted the student newspaper after it published an op-ed criticising the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the wake of these controversies, influential figures like Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama have expressed concern that today’s students unfairly shut out perspectives with which they don’t agree.
Roth, however, suggested that free speech advocates could use free speech as an excuse to limit excluded viewpoints.
Making sure that women, minorities, and other historically disadvantaged groups are heard is more important than worrying about whether complaints over a Halloween costume are compromising free speech, he said.
Then, Goldberg asked whether the Carter and Roth thought today’s students are coddled — a common criticism about today’s college students.
Carter said he believes students are acting sincerely but sometimes need to get “tougher” about having difficult conversations.
“When we say the cure for speech is more speech, it’s not a slogan, it’s not a way of escaping hard issues, it’s a way of embracing hard issues,” he said. “It’s a way of saying, if this is really so terrible, that’s exactly the reason to talk about it.”
But Roth disagreed. Polite conversations and discussions, he said, are not how progress is made — aggressive protests are sometimes needed.
“Some of us up here apparently have a very, very deep faith that the way social change happens is that you have a civil discussion, a reasoned debate, and that people through more speech get closer to the truth. And I think as a historian that’s crazy. That’s not how social change happens.”
Here’s the full video of the discussion:
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