Yes, Free Speech is Threatened on Campus

January 10, 2017

Stanford University psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Keith Humphreys recently argued that concerns about campus censorship are overblown because he and people he knows haven’t personally encountered them. Humphreys warned that those who had “been reading Conor Friedersdorf’s or [FIRE President and CEO] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s writings about campus culture in The Atlantic” might expect students to react with unreasonable, self-righteous outrage to the smallest imagined slights on campus. To the contrary, Humphreys argued:

People come to my university from all countries and all backgrounds with a huge range of beliefs and customs. Yet I have never (and I do mean never) witnessed anything on campus suggesting that the atmosphere of widespread intolerance, suspicion and emotional fragility that I keep reading about in The Atlantic actually exists. Yes, some students now and then have goofy ideas or act in rude ways, but, *cough*, I seem to remember that being just as much the case when I was a student 30 years ago.

Last week, Friedersdorf responded to Humphreys’ criticism, both on Twitter and (yes) in The Atlantic, and his reaction is well worth your time.

In response to Humphreys’ claim that Friedersdorf (and by extension FIRE) is simply “sampling the fringe and presenting it as generalizable” in discussing campus censorship, Friedersdorf writes:

I would welcome the data a national survey of educational institutions would yield. And it is useful to remember that there has never been a golden age of unfettered expression in institutions of higher education, from Socrates on down, even as taboos and orthodoxies have changed. But like most attempts to insist that documented injustices in a given realm don’t rise to a level that warrants concern, his insistence on further evidence falls short. It doesn’t make much sense to wait until a civil right or settled norm is attacked so pervasively that a large portion of the population has suffered harm before defending it. I’d prefer to protect the vulnerable individuals or groups first affected—what Humphreys calls “the fringe”––and thereby preempt pervasive harm.

The free-speech rights that Americans enjoy today are ours precisely because organizations like the ACLU have spent decades “sampling the fringe” and filing lawsuits adjudicating edge cases on behalf of the victims, often precisely because they are suffering from discriminatory treatment that is atypical and unrepresentative. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is doing that work today. It does so in part because it understands that enforcing speech restrictions against a very few people can invisibly chill the speech of a much larger class. One or two firings may be enough to convince many professors to watch what they say; no faculty waits for a wholesale purge before they begin to self-censor.

And suggesting that a hundred institutions restricting free speech still wouldn’t be sufficient evidence of a broad problem––or that a randomized sample is needed before a rigorous threshold is met––makes no sense in this context. Sometimes, the actions of a single university can have a broad impact all on their own. I’ve repeatedly written about threats to free speech at the University of California. It is funded by taxpayers, overseen by elected officials, and encompasses 238,000 students. Its faculty and staff number 190,000; and it has roughly 1.7 million alumni. When the UC system infringes on free speech, it has enormous ramifications, even if a randomly selected sample of other colleges is doing much better.

We strongly agree with Friedersdorf’s points. And we remind readers that unfortunately, FIRE is not hurting for examples of restrictive policies and their application.

Last year alone, FIRE fielded a record 908 requests for help from students and faculty members across the country—and those are just case submissions. We find out about many additional cases through news reports and social media. We maintain a database that tracks restrictive speech codes on more than 400 college campuses, which prioritizes large and public campuses in order to account for a substantial percentage of America’s college students. (Humphreys could look up Stanford’s restrictive codes there.) Our undefeated Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project has sponsored a dozen lawsuits challenging those codes and has, to date, restored the speech rights of more than 250,000 students.

You can see a full accounting of our work on our website, and you can read Friedersdorf’s full piece in The Atlantic.