The question of, “is there a campus free speech crisis?” is fraught. The answer depends, in large part, on the evidence one uses to answer it. In most commentary so far, the metrics used to measure political tolerance on campus are at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

Our collective attention is drawn to overt rather than latent manifestations of illiberalism. It is not surprising that dramatic phenomena like campus mobs and shoutdowns get most of the attention. But less overt forms of bias are equally problematic yet under-addressed. When we focus solely on what we can measure and count — disinvitationsfaculty terminations, or “red light” ratings, for example —we shine a narrow spotlight on a much larger problem.

Consider two posts by political scientist Jeffrey Sachs entitled “There is No Campus Free Speech Crisis” and “The ‘Campus Free Speech Crisis’ Ended Last Year.” Sachs argues that controversy over the “campus free speech crisis” was overblown, and that in any case the putative crisis dissipated over the course of 2018.

In his first piece, he reinforces the argument made by other commentators (including Matt Yglesias at Vox and Aaron Hanlan at NBC) that young people and university students generally support free speech, higher education is associated with more tolerance for offensive speech, and a few unrepresentative mobs and shutdowns shouldn’t set the terms of how we talk about free speech on campus. In his second piece, he argues that, at any rate, the number of problematic cases as measured by these metrics declined during 2018.

Sachs acknowledges a number of caveats; for instance, a decline in disinvitations might actually be the result of students no longer wanting to take the risk of inviting controversial speakers. Yet his analyses of the climate on campus, and others like them, fail to account for two significant factors:

  1. The limited way in which many people on campus — faculty and students alike — conceptualize free speech.
  2. The way that potentially controversial material is taught in the classroom.

Conditional Support for Free Speech

The loudest voices on any contentious issue tend to fall clearly into the “for” or “against” column. As far as issues surrounding free speech and viewpoint diversity are concerned, in this view, there are essentially two sides:

There are ‘conventional supporters’ (a group that includes me), who consider the dual ideals of free speech and viewpoint diversity to be of paramount importance on campus and off. They tend to understand variability in how we see and relate to the world as essential for learning and growth. They support pluralism and the free exchange of ideas – even when it seems inconvenient, uncomfortable, noxious, or threatening to do so.

On the other side are the cynics. While they tend to see free-speech and viewpoint-diversity as worthy ideals in the abstract, in practice they are perceived as often doing more harm than good. For instance, they allow false or dangerous views to persist or grow. To their minds, advocacy for ‘viewpoint diversity’ or ‘free speech’ often seems like a thinly-veiled attempt to normalize white supremacy and other harmful ideologies. Consequently, they often position themselves in opposition to those who appeal to these ideals.

In spite of the lure of this simplistic dichotomy, however, there is a third category that we might think of as conditional supporters of free speech and viewpoint diversity. It consists of those who view themselves as supportive, yet who consider their own worldview to be beyond meaningful reproach. As a result, they tend to lack sufficient intellectual humilitycharity or curiosity to benefit from diverse viewpoints or engage constructively across difference. Instead, they appeal to viewpoint diversity or open inquiry when convenient for advancing their own agenda, but often try to stifle perspectives that run contrary thereto.

In some ways this third group is more dangerous to efforts to promote viewpoint diversity than its more direct opponents. More alarming still, this category is made up, in no small part, of students and young people. This may help explain the disconnect between studies showing that people ages 18-34 are among the most likely to support free speech in the abstract with those showing that students seem significantly more likely than most others to (self) censor in practice.

The conditional supporters were on full display at the recent conference in Washington, D.C., put on by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement (created in October 2017 in the aftermath of a series of national protests, including several on University of California campuses, that raised serious free-speech concerns). In addition to bringing together a range of people working on related topics, one of the center’s goals is to “provide a hub for activities and events aimed at restoring trust in the value and importance of free speech.”

I was fortunate to be a participant on one of the panels (video of the entire conference is linked here). Given the subject of the conference, I assumed that most of the other attendees would be supporters of free speech in the ‘conventional’ sense that I understand it. And yet, over the course of the afternoon, it became clear that many of those present had a significantly different understanding of what free speech entails (and doesn’t).

A key example of occurred during the discussion for the panel in which I participated, “Furthering Civil Discourse in Higher Education.” One of the questions posed by the moderator was whether the idea of civility can reinforce the status quo and work to marginalize views of groups that have been underrepresented. One of my fellow panelists answered definitively “yes,” elaborating with a metaphor:

“…Think about if you are trying to get the attention of someone who’s, you know, handing out life vests, right. And the person the furthest away from whoever’s handing out life vests in an emergency has to jump up and down and scream, ‘Give me the life vest!’, right. And the person very, very close to whoever’s handing out the life vests can be like, ‘Pardon me, I would very much not like to drown today.’ And the chances are the cheapest seats are the ones furthest from the guy with the life vest…”

This drew an enthusiastic response from the audience, with one student singling it out to thank her in the Q&A. The panelist’s remarks reflect a perspective that society can be reduced to a power struggle between identity groups. It’s not news that this perspective dominates on the political left. However, hearing it evoked and received uncritically at a conference on promoting free speech was unexpected.

If ostensible supporters of viewpoint diversity and the free exchange of ideas are apparently non-reflective about their own worldviews — and readily portray complex social phenomenon in Manichean terms – improvements to the prevailing civic and intellectual dynamics on campus (and beyond) will likely continue to prove elusive.

Bias in the Classroom

In many courses on campus, material is regularly presented in such a way that theoretical perspectives are taught as definitive truth — and the narrow range of causes and solutions offered for our most difficult societal problems are presented as the only morally valid way to understand and relate to the world.

Consider the following example: In March 2019, Aurora University undergraduate Kevin Weis wrote a commentary for the Chicago Tribune with the headline, “A College Lecture Made Me Realize I’m Squelching Free Speech on Campus.” He described how, in a class discussion on the proposed removal of Confederate statues from public spaces, virtually all of students who spoke up in the approximately 75-person class were the most left-wing. They strongly favored removing not only Confederate statues but also monuments to nameless Confederate soldiers “erected for the families who lost loved ones,” and even the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial.

And, yet, at an after-class meeting, he realized that there were many students who supported more nuanced solutions, such as keeping some statues up to be used as learning tools, preserving others in museums, or removing the statues of notorious Confederate commanders while allowing monuments to nameless soldiers to remain. When it comes to free speech on campus, he concluded, “I am part of the problem. I could have spoken up during the lecture, but I chose not to. I let the more radical voices rule the day, uncontested.”

When students are actively led ,or passively allowed, by instructors to believe that there is only one right way to understand the world, the groundwork is laid for a breakdown in communication. In Weis’ example, the students who were not present at the smaller after-class meeting likely came away from the lecture with the impression that the only acceptable approach to the problem was that of the most vocal students: razing all the monuments.

During the spring 2019 semester, I taught a course on viewpoint diversity called Bigots and Snowflakes: Living in a World Where Everyone Else is Wrong. Over the course of the semester, I had the opportunity to hear from several students about their experiences in other classes.

Several mentioned courses in which the topic of intersectionality arose, and were struck that at no point did the instructor mention that it is a theory and a possible way to see the world, not truth in any universal sense. I have heard similar stories from students regarding how critical race theory is typically taught, despite instructors often explicitly proclaiming from the outset that they leave their personal political biases at the door.

To be clear, these viewpoints and theories should be taught. They constitute important and valid perspectives. Even those who do not see their value should appreciate that exiling them would be an authoritarian “solution,” and would simply imperil learning in a different direction. The problem is that much of what is taught in the classroom is currently not presented with adequate context, or alongside (charitably-presented) competing theories. As I put it in a recent essay, “Students can and do go through entire courses and indeed through their entire undergraduate (and in some cases graduate) education never encountering the possibility that there can be valid reasons to think differently about how to approach social problems.”

While students who become aware of this lacuna can and should express their frustration, the obligation to provide context ultimately should rest upon instructors who, as professionals, bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. Instructors, myself included, who touch on politically sensitive subjects have a moral and intellectual obligation to portray the world in a fair-minded way. Although that obligation should be taken as seriously as any other, it continues to go largely unfulfilled.

In sum, the dual problems of implicitly conditional support for free speech and viewpoint diversity, and subtle but pervasive bias in the way material is taught in the classroom, suggest we need a much wider spotlight in our consideration of campus climate and intellectual freedom.