All Sections

Home  Columns

Virginia Postrel: ‘Free speech zones’ and other college lies

April 28. 2014 5:54PM

THE PARENTS and newly admitted students visiting colleges this month are asking questions about social life, study habits and — everyone’s favorite topic these days — job prospects after graduation. These are all important subjects, but if you care about your child’s intellectual development, or just want to keep the kid out of trouble, you should also ask about the university’s attitudes toward free speech.

For more than a decade I’ve been on the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil-liberties watchdog group that defends the rights of college students and faculty. Many cases FIRE gets involved in stem from “politically correct” censorship; but the range of university abuses is much wider than that.

To take a particularly absurd example, in January a Bergen Community College professor was placed on leave after he posted on Google+ a photograph of his young daughter wearing a “Game of Thrones” T-shirt with the quote, “I will take what is mine with fire & blood.” An administrator deemed the photo a disturbing threat of violence.

The cumulative effect of even such apparently minor incidents is pernicious. Students learn to keep their heads down and express their views only when they are sure to have a friendly audience. The competition among ideas, on which education and the advancement of knowledge depends, withers.

To find out a school’s true attitudes toward free speech, it isn’t enough to ask a seemingly straightforward question like, “I’m outspoken about my beliefs. Will I get in trouble for being opinionated?” On many campuses, outspokenness is highly valued — as long as you have the right views. Instead, here are four specific questions that demand factual answers.

1) Does the campus host debates on controversial issues? If so, what are some recent topics?

Debates aren’t, of course, the only way to showcase a wide variety of views. But debates on hot-button issues do demonstrate that the institution isn’t just feigning allegiance to the idea of intellectual diversity, and they provide models of how minority views can be confronted respectfully. A related question is whether the school has rescinded an invitation to a speaker in the face of student or faculty uproar.

2) Do you have a “free speech zone?”

To people unfamiliar with campus jargon, this question sounds like it’s asking for evidence of free speech. In fact, it’s the opposite. A “free speech zone” is a tiny portion of campus, usually far away from the main thoroughfares, where students are allowed to hand out leaflets or hold protests and rallies only after they have filed the proper paperwork and given plenty of notice.

Designating a limited “free speech zone” does much more than keep noisy demonstrations away from quiet study spaces. It’s a way of squelching spontaneous action or immediate responses to controversial news. Free speech zones, says FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, “teach students that speech should be contained by officials, controlled and feared, rather then celebrated, utilized and engaged.”

3) What is the administrator-to-professor ratio? How much has that grown in the last 10 years?

This question illuminates where the university’s priorities lie — in teaching and research or in overhead — while also offering a clue about attitudes toward academic freedom and students’ rights. Administrators, not professors, are the ones making and enforcing rules against speech. They are the ones more concerned with maintaining order and a shiny institutional image than with intellectual inquiry and the marketplace of ideas.

4) Are students accused of offenses presumed innocent until proved guilty? What is the standard of proof? How do you adjudicate honor or student code violations?

Any student can potentially get caught up in disciplinary proceedings and on many campuses these processes are extremely arbitrary, even when the charges are serious enough that they should warrant criminal investigation.

But it turns out that most violations of free speech also entail a disregard for due process, as students and professors are found guilty of harassment or making threats without precise charges or clear standards of evidence. As FIRE has learned from countless cases, many abuses of free speech are simply too ridiculous to survive public scrutiny. Consider the student charged with racial harassment for reading a book about how Notre Dame University defeated a Ku Klux Klan march in 1924. Schools can only railroad people if they lack well-designed disciplinary mechanisms that respect due process.

The connection goes deeper. Both free speech and due process, Lukianoff notes, “are structural ways to deal with the human tendency towards unwarranted certainty.” Understanding how much we don’t know is the first step toward true education. Schools that respect this fundamental insight will also respect student rights.

Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics, and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @vpostrel.

Guest Commentary

Newsletter Signup

Market Fair and Militia Muster
Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.

Harvest Music Festival
Saturday, 4-9 p.m.

The Enchanted Forest
Friday-Saturday, 5 - 9 p.m.

Livingston Taylor
Saturday, 8 p.m.