Max Diamond graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and earned his B.A. in English from Reed College in 2016. He is an editor and writer living in New York.
Wellesley College’s Faculty on the Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity just released a statement calling for new speech prohibitions on campus. The statement is uniquely troubling for free speech in that it explicitly calls for regulating speech on a content basis, and puts itself forward as a means of vetting possible speakers.
Unlike student activists, the Supreme Court has set a strong precedent for maintaining free speech irrespective of the content of the speech itself. In the 2003 Supreme Court Case Virginia v. Black for example, it was only speech with the intention to intimidate that was considered illegal; the content of the speech itself was not ipso facto evidence of the intention to intimidate. Interpreting the First Amendment so as to protect all speech-content itself prevents an arbitrary ruling on what kind of speech should be prohibited.
Wellesley’s statement, however, which, if carried out, will necessarily result in ideologically biased speech prohibitions We know this because the statement itself puts forth a view as to what is a correct scientific view – whether or not there are sex differences which determine interests or success in particular fields (the precise word is “equipped” however this can be interpreted in many different ways). It then condemns all who disagree as purporting “pseudoscience” and as unqualified to speak at a college like Wellesley. This is not a question of what view is supported by the best scientific evidence but rather whether or not the subject, tone, and perspective are in-line with predetermined lines of thought. How would they treat Charles Murray? Would they ban an appearance based on the prevailing arguments by protestors if it mirrored their outlook on his research?
The Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity also stated that it is happy “to serve as a sounding board when hosts are considering inviting controversial speakers.” This Commission not only proposes ideological content-based speech prohibitions but openly states that it would like to actively assess speakers. Given the evidence of the statement, it is fair to say the Commission would use content-based speech prohibitions when assessing speakers, therefore wielding a powerful ideological influence. How does that fare for groups outside of the intellectual mainstream? One might conclude that it would not be favorable.
If campuses want to remain committed to freedom of speech and free inquiry then they must remain content-neutral. They must not decide what are a priori acceptable positions. Our democratic institutions have remained committed to free speech irrespective of content precisely so that individuals with diverse ideas can express themselves without fear of ideological censorship. It is a clear vision for the academy that must remain true.