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Lipson’s Five Steps to ‘Revive’ Campus Speech a Solid Start

By June 29, 2016

Writing for RealClearPolitics yesterday, University of Chicago political science professor Charles Lipson expressed his frustration over what he has dubbed “The Death of Campus Free Speech” and proposed five steps to revive it.

Lipson, who also founded and directs the university’s Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security, first describes a “Bizarro World” in which campuses have downgraded the importance of their educational mission in favor of insulating students from uncomfortable ideas at all costs. Adding himself to the ranks of those who argue that this shift not only is at odds with the fundamental purpose of a university but also threatens the very future of higher education and, ultimately, society at large, Lipson writes:

Unless universities address these issues, firmly and promptly, they will fail in their basic mission of promoting the exchange of ideas, real learning, and innovative research. That mission requires vigorous, unfettered debates and diverse viewpoints. Right now, it is being smothered in an avalanche of delicate snowflakes.

He then lists five changes he says could help shift this trajectory on college campuses. We think, for the most part, they’re a good start.

First, university professors and administrators must protect free speech through “intellectual courage.” Lipson adds that administrators must be held to that standard by their superiors:

Their boards of trustees should demand to know if free speech is protected on their campuses, in principle and in practice. Then, they should hold the school administrators accountable for results.

On this front, FIRE launched a national campaign last year to encourage schools to adopt the free speech policy statement produced by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression. The statement strongly commits colleges and universities to the ideals of free speech and academic freedom. To date, administrations or faculty governing bodies at more than a dozen schools have officially endorsed the Chicago Statement.

Second, universities must openly promote the ideals of free speech to students from before they matriculate until they graduate:

[U]niversities should tell students, beginning with their acceptance letters, that “our school believes in free speech, open debate, and diverse opinions. You will hear different views on controversial topics. You are urged to read, write, and develop your own views, but you may not suppress others.” Stress that core value during orientation week. Urge students who seek shelter from intellectual challenges to go somewhere else.

Third, amid the sea of administrators, devote one to free expression:

This administrator should have no other responsibilities for student affairs since, experience shows, those other student responsibilities undermine the focus on free speech. He or she should make regular reports to the university president, faculty, and board, just as others do about gender discrimination, physical safety, and other issues.

This one is tricky. Although it sounds great in theory to have an administrator specifically devoted to free speech on campus, the reality is that administrative bloat is a major contributor to the overregulation of students’ lives on campus, so adding more administrators is not necessarily an ideal remedy.

Moreover, as University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Donald Downs notes, once an administrator is hired, that person shares the interests of the university—ones that may conflict with the duties they were hired to undertake.

“The danger lies in picking someone who is insufficiently knowledgeable or committed,” Downs said. “If an official position is made, such faculty should be present to keep the person honest. If it is just left to itself, such an office cannot always be trusted.”

“It could be a Trojan Horse for the forces of darkness,” Downs said.

Fourth, uphold academic freedom:

Begin by restoring the rightful meaning of “student safety.” It shouldn’t be distorted to shield students from uncomfortable ideas. In the 1950s, that would have prevented students at Ole Miss from urging racial integration, or even hearing about it in class. Somebody would have been offended.

Fifth, encourage students to protest peacefully, but disallow the “heckler’s veto”:

[Students] have every right to hold their own events, opposing what others’ [sic] advocate. But they have no right to disrupt others, and they will be punished if they do. Stop coddling rabble-rousers who come to campus specifically to disrupt academic events, as they often do. Universities routinely ignore these problems, despite their corrosive effects.

Lipson’s piece is important because it not only highlights some of the most frustrating examples of campus censorship to date but also includes concrete suggestions for how to improve the situation on campus. FIRE’s list of proposed solutions would likely differ in certain respects—for one thing, we would add that universities must stand up to federal government overreach, and that students and faculty who care about free speech must help rebalance universities’ incentives by taking legal action against institutions that infringe on their rights. But this is an important conversation to be having, and we are grateful for Lipson’s contribution to it.

Check out his full piece over at RealClearPolitics.