Students and Professors, Please Keep Offending Each Other! Your Education Depends on It

By November 19, 2009

How woeful is the state of free speech on our nation’s campuses? Judging from recent headlines, it’s woeful indeed. That’s because lately, a university’s refusal to punish a professor for protected speech has been noteworthy enough to qualify as headline news. That’s right: It is now news when a university actually respects someone’s right to free speech.

Here’s how it goes: a professor publishes something on the Internet, someone on campus feels offended and tries to get the professor punished, and the university respects the professor’s right to free expression.

Is this news? Nowell, at least, it shouldn’t be.

People offend one another all the time on college campuses. If Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and atheist students aren’t constantly offending one another by challenging one another to defend their deepest beliefs and commitments, they aren’t getting much of an education. Likewise, if students of all races, ethnicities, and other identities aren’t constantly offending one another by challenging one another to explain just what each one’s identity really means, they aren’t developing an independent appreciation of who they really are. And if students are not constantly offending one another by challenging one another to defend their moral, political, sexual, economic, and environmental choices, they are failing to encourage one another to be the best they can be.

Too often, students (and professors) interpret these fundamental challenges merely as "offensive" attacks or even as "hate speech." But the success of all of these kinds of "offenses" depends on what FIRE calls the "strong student" model. Iron sharpens iron, as the saying goes. College students are adults and need to be able to take it when they hear something that offends them. Critical thinking means, among other things, recognizing that words are not magic and do not automatically hurt. If students feel too weak or disempowered to withstand and fight back against criticism, even occasional epithets, they need to develop the resources and confidence to stand strongnot to call on Alma Mater to punish the offensive offender. 

This brings me to the latest non-news at New York University, about which Wall Street Journal writer James Taranto reflects incisively:

Tunku Varadarajan of Forbes.com [and NYU's Stern School of Business] wrote a column meditating on the Fort Hood massacre, which, he noted, appears to have been a religiously motivated "act of messianic violence." … [H]is column set off predictable complaints from Muslim students and alumni. One alum, Haroon Moghul, wrote an essay at ReligionDispatches.org in which he accused Varadarajan of "hate-mongering." He wrote that Varadarajan’s column had caused him "pain" and "feelings of marginalization," and the headline and subheadline described him as "shocked" by Varadarajan’s writing.

Eventually the university president, John Sexton, was compelled to respond. While he correctly noted that it would be wrong for the university "to punish faculty officially for expressing such ideas," he also issued a declaration of disapproval:

A journalist and NYU clinical faculty member has written a piece for Forbes that many Muslims find offensive. I understand how they feel–I found it offensive, too. [...]

[...]

[Sexton's] statement "I found it offensive, too" is a ritualized expression of empathy, not to be mistaken for the real thing. And if you read the entire letter, you will find that in spite of Sexton’s statement that he has "not foresworn" his right "to challenge an idea that I believe is erroneous," he offers no substantive argument to rebut Varadarajan’s column.

This is how "diversity" works in practice: Intellectual contention is drowned out in a sea of emotion, much of it phony. Members of designated victim groups respond to a serious argument with "pain" and "shock" and accusations of "hate," and university administrators make a show of pretending to care.

At some campuses, administrators and faculty members actually do practice censorship. NYU, at least in this instance, is not the worst offender in this respect. But this sort of emotional frenzy is nonetheless inimical to the spirit of rational inquiry that universities are supposed to encourage.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything in those excerpts. Often, university administrators sincerely care when students feel offended, and sometimes I think they actually believe that an offense breaks apart the very fabric of the "campus community." When even faculty members are promoting candlelight vigils over quite tame party advertisements, it’s easy for administrators to get fooled into thinking that such things really disrupt the campus.

Yet, if FIRE wrote a blog post every time this happenedmanufactured controversy, cries of outrage and hurt feelings (sincere for some), but no punishmentwe’d be writing all the time. (It is hard to keep from calling out the Claremont Colleges, however, the strangest and most frequent offender, for engaging their "bias-incident protocol" against offenses such as the line "Hillary is a foxy lesbian.") We have enough to do handling the colleges that do take the extra step to punish.

Most faculty members would never want to sign on to a standard whereby they could face punishment over "offensive" but fully protected off-campus speech. Moreover, students should not be able to make national headlines simply by calling for a professor to be punished for such speech. The press is much to blame for such non-news headlines. When there’s no punishment then it’s not really newsworthy, just a university engaging in debate, doing one of the things it does best. As NYU columnist Bill Santagata put it, it’s a matter of responding to speech with criticism and "better speech."