What comes next for students at ‘green light’ schools? Putting policy into practice.

July 6, 2017

FIRE has labeled my school, The College of William & Mary, a “green light” institution, meaning that we have policies supporting and protecting free speech on campus. I am proud of my school’s speech code rating; the prospect of being exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives is one of the reasons I chose to attend William & Mary in the first place. However, I’m sad to say that, at least in this respect, my actual experience at William & Mary has not lived up to my expectations. While we haven’t seen many of the distinct issues FIRE routinely deals with — like “disinvitations” or restrictive free speech zones the problem I see at William & Mary is both more pernicious and complex. In short, William & Mary needs to cultivate a culture of conversation — something that can’t be achieved with policy reform alone.

At the end of my freshman year, the student speaker at the college’s commencement ceremony talked about the value of challenging our beliefs and acknowledging opinions different from our own. But he lamented that he had far too seldom seen this sort of engagement actually happening on campus. This statement, especially coming from a graduating senior, is emblematic of the next challenge for free speech on my campus. William & Mary identifies as one of its “special strengths” that it encourages students to “challenge and debate ideas, take seriously views different from their own, and explore boundaries.” This promise of engaged learning should be the cornerstone of any liberal arts education. However, the reality on campus is one not of engagement, but of political polarization and of ideological isolation.

The particularly difficult thing about this problem is that it is self-imposed. Students are increasingly avoiding difficult conversations with those on the other side of the political spectrum, instead choosing to commiserate with people with whom they already agree. This is bad intellectual practice, making us more likely to fall victim to groupthink and to demonize the other side. It also makes us decidedly less likely to “challenge and debate ideas, take seriously views different from [our] own, and explore boundaries,” as William & Mary suggests students ought to do. For that reason, even at green light institutions like mine, we cannot rest on our laurels. Even the most well-written First Amendment protections mean little if we do not use them.

Of course, this problem is not confined to William & Mary. Across the country, research has shown that ideological polarization among the public at large has increased dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center, in the 2016 election cycle, for the first time in more than two decades, majorities in both parties expressed “very unfavorable views” of the other party. Among those who are highly engaged in politics, 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans said they were “afraid” of the other party. Furthermore (and somewhat ironically), 70 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans said the other party is more closed-minded than most Americans, while 67 percent of Democrats said people in their own party are more open-minded than most Americans.  

Importantly, the research demonstrates that this divide is exacerbated when people don’t interact with members of the other party. Those who had few or no friends in the other party were much more likely to have “very cold” feelings towards the other party. The more we isolate ourselves, the less likely we are to have conversations with people on the other side, and the easier it becomes to call those people amoral or intellectually bankrupt.

For the purposes of William & Mary and other green light institutions, so long as we continue to isolate ourselves, we are shutting ourselves out of the well-rounded education we came to school to receive. Staying put in an ideological echo chamber serves as an impediment both to truth-seeking and to intellectual humility. Worse, this polarization, if allowed to fester, could lead to further legal restriction on speech we disagree with. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously, and somewhat prophetically, wrote in his 1919 dissent in Abrams v. United States, “If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition.”

My prescription for this problem is obvious: More conversation across ideological lines. However, this is easier said than done. At William & Mary, several student initiatives have attempted to solve this very problem by giving students a forum to speak and to listen. Unsurprisingly, given the rising prevalence of intellectual isolation, these events have suffered from lack of participation. In order to find solutions to this problem, each of us must adopt better conversational practices.  

We could follow the example of professor Robert George, a brilliant legal scholar and political philosopher at Princeton University who recently made headlines for working with  his equally brilliant — but ideologically opposite — colleague, professor Cornel West. George and West have championed “intellectual humility” as the key to any productive dialogue. As George recently put it:

The people involved in the conversation first have to recognize that they are fallible, frail, fallen human beings.  They have to recognize that they could be wrong…and if in fact one has that attitude and understanding, not in a merely notional way, but in a deeply appropriated way, then one will begin to develop a virtue that is indispensable for truth-seeking, and that is the virtue of intellectual humility.

If we intend to escape the rut of political polarization, students and administrators have to work together to encourage free speech and robust debate. We have to foster a culture of intellectual humility and provide opportunities for people with diverse perspectives to come together and have conversations. We have to get the word out about events that seek to achieve this purpose in order to maximize the ideological and experiential diversity of students participating. We have to advocate on campus both for the value of these conversations and what best conversational practices would look like. We have to invite speakers to campus who will frame the campus debate in the most productive way possible.  

But most of all, we have to want to do this.  

For freedom of speech to have value, we have to speak. And the primary responsibility for making this happen lies not with the university, but with us — the student body. This means being willing to challenge our viewpoints, and accepting that we may be wrong. If we succeed at William & Mary, I fully believe that we can course-correct, and ultimately make good on the promise of a true liberal arts education.

Jacob Hill is a rising junior at The College of William & Mary and a FIRE summer intern.

Schools:  The College of William & Mary