Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Free Speech in Higher Education": Not about Higher Education, and Not About Free Speech

Those of us in higher education got an earful about one particular bit of President Trump's CPAC speech, regarding his pledge to create an executive order restricting federal research funds to campuses that don't "protect free speech". Here's one story among many from the higher ed press:
Legal Scholars Don’t Know the Details of Trump’s Order on Campus Speech. But They Think It’s a Mistake.
This issue has been buzzing around the political sphere for while now, usually in discussions on the conservative or Republican side. Accusations have been flying about how there is a "crisis" in free speech in higher education.

Here's my take: there is no crisis. This isn't about higher education. And it isn't about free speech.

The poster child for this "crisis" of late has been Hayden Williams, an activist with an organization called Turning Point USA, a conservative group that recruits on college campuses. Williams was at an event on the UC-Berkeley campus last year when he was punched by another individual. The event was captured on camera and broadcast across the internet, where it quickly became fodder among conservative commentators as evidence of the "crisis of free speech" on campuses. The President brought Williams up on stage during his CPAC speech to illustrate the "crisis" he's trying to address.

I think the Williams case is actually the perfect example of the broader issue. Williams is not a student at UC-Berkeley - indeed, he has no affiliation with the university at all. He is a private citizen who came onto the campus from outside to use it as a platform for the message he wanted to promulgate.

The man who punched Williams was also not a student, nor affiliated with UC-Berkeley in any way. He was another private citizen who had come onto campus from outside, presumably to oppose or object to Williams' views. Or maybe he was just passing by.

So this isn't about higher education at all. This encounter could just as well have occurred in a public park, or on a street corner, or in the local post office. If it had, I doubt we would be talking about a "crisis in free speech in our public parks".

Moreover, Berkeley did exactly what any institution committed to free speech would do. It openly permitted Mr. Williams to come onto campus and speak and made no attempt to curtail or constrain that speech. Its police promptly arrested the man who threw the punch. Allowing that UC-Berkeley is a government entity, and that the right of free speech is a right to be free from government interference in speech, there was nothing about this incident that involved what we would consider constraints on free speech. The problem here was about civility, not government (or university) constraints on speech.

Finally, this is nowhere near the definition of a "crisis". There are between 3000 and 4000 institutions of higher education in this country. Every day, in every one of them, there are robust conversations about all sorts of things. If you were to add up all of the public incidents about "free speech" on college campuses over the past year, they wouldn't amount to more than a dozen or two, most involving small groups of students (if they involve students at all). Out of three million+ college students, a couple dozen is a rounding error, not a crisis.

Polls of the broader population show that large percentages of Republican-identifying adults believe that college professors are out to indoctrinate students with liberal ideas and suppress conservatives. These polls are meaningless, because they are asking these questions of a population that isn't actually in college and has no direct knowledge of what's going on on campuses. Moreover, well over 50% of that population has never been to college, so they don't even have their own past experiences to draw on. All these polls show is the power of media persuasion to get people to believe something in the absence of any direct evidence or experience.

So any executive order (if there is one, and if it is crafted to actually be implementable) will be a solution in search of a problem, a symbolic act designed for purposes that have nothing to do with what it's supposedly about. Which is a perfect statement about our politics today: angry, tribal symbolism disconnected from reality - at best, a distraction; at worst, an obstacle to us trying to build the society we really want to live in.