Losing the Marketplace of Ideas

By on December 15, 2009

by Eric Podolsky

"The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas [and] the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market," states Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his decision in Abrams v. United States. Few will disagree that the cornerstone of capitalism is competition in the free market. A business can present a product to the scrutiny of the public, and it will either succeed or fail in competition with other products. However, as Justice Holmes notes, this idea of a free market is not only integral to a capitalist society with goods and services but to a democratic society with ideas. An authority in any kind of society has two choices: either he can censor speech and institute one common idea, the "totalitarian socialism"of ideas, or he can allow for free speech and hope that the best ideas will survive in the marketplace of ideas, the "free market capitalism" of ideas. History has shown us that the marketplace of ideas is essential to progress and change in society, most notably in the United States, where dissident ideas have done everything from starting a revolution to ending wars. Because of this, it is imperative that the principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas continue to exist in our universities.

The ability to express one’s opinions freely is an essential characteristic of a university setting, as Thomas Jefferson agreed when he founded the University of Virginia, "based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind." However, a disturbing trend of unnecessary censorship in American universities has recently appeared, and any person who believes in a free marketplace of ideas ought to be fighting against this infringement on the most basic ideals of a democratic society.

An example of this kind of censorship is the experience of Valdosta State University (VSU) student T. Hayden Barnes in 2007. When the administration of VSU decided to build a new parking garage on campus, Barnes decided to protest the plan because he believed that the new project would encourage more driving, which would have a negative environmental impact. He started a peaceful protest campaign which involved writing letters to administration members and the school newspaper as well as spreading his message on Facebook. Although Barnes believed that his efforts were peaceful and acceptable in the context of a university, the administration thought differently and claimed that Barnes represented a "clear and present danger." Because he was so "dangerous," he was then expelled from VSU without a hearing.

There are several reasons why VSU’s behavior in this situation was wrong or even illegal. First, VSU is a public university and because of this, it has to abide by both the laws of the Georgia State Constitution as well as the United States Constitution. If we look at both of these documents, we can see that both expressly guarantee the freedom of speech and expression: the Georgia Bill of Rights states that "every person may speak, write, and publish sentiments on all subjects," and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from infringing on the freedom of speech. Because VSU has to follow both of these documents, it has clearly done wrong by censoring T. Hayden Barnes.

Second, the university’s unwillingness to provide Barnes with a hearing before his expulsion again shows that the university’s biggest goal is to stifle dissident speech. With such a large decision as expulsion in question, the members of a democratic society would hold a hearing in which both parties can express their grievances and defend themselves, but VSU decided to forgo this process altogether and completely take away Barnes’ rights as a member of a public university.

Finally, the behavior of the university exposes the nature of universities in the modern day. While they used to be places where people could express their opinions freely, such as during the Vietnam War demonstrations in the 1960s, universities have become places where students must agree with the administration or leave. This is a definite attack on the marketplace of ideas which used to exist in American universities, and this kind of stifling of ideas is probably the most illiberal action that a university could take. For hundreds or even thousands of years, universities have been places where people can freely speak and debate; however, with actions like those of VSU, colleges are losing that great ideal.

Another similar event occurred in 2007 at the University of Delaware (UD). The university’s Office of Residence Life had designed a mandatory program in which it implicitly coerced students into certain ideologies. According to students, students were forced to separate themselves into groups based on certain issues (for example, whether they supported gay marriage), which essentially amounted to ridiculing those who disagreed with the positions of university staff (in this case, the Office of Residence Life believed in gay marriage). In other cases, staff gave students mandatory surveys which asked questions like whether they would ever date someone of another race. The staff would again use this as a tool to tell students what to think about race. Because students would not want to speak out against their superiors, they would just have to listen and accept what they were hearing.

An important distinction to make with colleges is whether they tell students how to think or what to think. When a university tells students how to think, it presents them with relevant data from both sides and lets them make their own decisions through debate and soul-searching. However, when a university tells students what to think, as UD did in this situation, it stifles free thought, implicitly or explicitly, and indoctrinates students with a certain idea. In this case, it was the idea that "systematic oppression exists in our society" from the Residence Life program. Universities should be places that prepare students for the real world in which they must think critically to make good decisions rather than just blindly accepting ideas from their superiors. This kind of thought control might pass in 1984 by George Orwell where Big Brother tells people what to think. However, in a society where we are taught to speak freely and question common knowledge, our universities ought to be the pinnacle of unabated free thought.

The marketplace of ideas is the best way to harvest good ideas in society, and the universities of the world are the best places to house this marketplace of ideas. As students learn from their classes, universities should also give students the room to flourish and form their own opinions, and even question the authority of the university itself.  In this way, universities will let students go wherever their minds take them, and as John Stuart Mill writes, "No one can be a great thinker who does not follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think."