Censorship and Controversy

By July 31, 2008

(2008 FIRE Summer Intern Michael Davidson will be a senior at Princeton and is studying Philosophy.)

In 2003, the Supreme Court heard two cases in conjunction, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, both dealing with the issue of affirmative action in higher education. The Gratz decision struck down Michigan’s point-based admission policy that granted a certain number of points to underrepresented ethnic groups. Grutter held in a 5-4 decision that though quota systems may not be used, colleges can consider race and other factors as part of a holistic admissions process with the goal of increasing diversity in schools. In Justice Scalia’s dissent in the Grutter decision, he wrote:

Unlike a clear constitutional holding that racial preferences in state educational institutions are impermissible, or even a clear anticonstitutional holding that racial preferences in state educational institutions are OK, today’s GrutterGratz split double header seems perversely designed to prolong the controversy and the litigation.

On college campuses, Scalia’s prediction about prolonged controversy has seemingly come true. In the past several years, student groups at dozens of schools have organized "Affirmative Action Bake Sales" where different races are charged different prices for baked goods, the goal being a political statement about what organizers of such events believe is the injustice of affirmative action programs. Instead of encouraging a dialogue between students on affirmative action, however, there has been a trend among administrations to simply shut down the protests to avoid controversy. FIRE has been involved in several of these cases: at DePaul University, University of Colorado at Boulder, College of William and Mary, and others.

Instead of shutting down protests like the Affirmative Action Bake Saleswhich, offensive though they might be to some, undoubtedly qualify as instances of satirical political speechcollege administrators would be better served by allowing this sharp but important debate to continue unimpeded. Censoring such a debate ensures nothing but continued misunderstanding and discord. John Stuart Mill’s pithy explanation in his On Liberty for the fundamental philosophical flaw with this kind of censorship cannot be repeated often enough: "[I]f any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility."

Affirmative action is a very controversial issue, and for college administrations to deny students the right to advocate for their political belief on such a divisive issue is to arrogantly assume their view is the only one worth having. Even if affirmative action is in the end determined to be a just policy, it benefits everyone to have political arguments expressed and discourse maintained so that people can gain a better understanding of the issue. Censoring opinions stifles the search for truth that universities should strive for. If political opinions are squashed on college campusesthe place in America where the marketplace of ideas should be most forcefully protectedthen a truly liberal education has indeed become a thing of the past.