Diversity and Democracy

Free Speech Is Not Enough

On January 15, 1975, US President Gerald R. Ford delivered his first State of the Union address, declaring with astonishing candor that the state of the union was “not good.” Today, the recent rash of incidents related to free speech at Auburn, Berkeley, Missouri, Yale, and Chicago, among others, has tempted many commentators to similarly assess the state of US college and university campuses and students. They raise alarms about insufficient regard for free speech, as heard in complaints about “snowflake” students and attempts to disrupt talks by Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter. Alternatively, they complain of a fetishizing of free speech, as when defending disruptive student actions and privileging experiential positions on issues like legacy racism, microaggressions, and trigger warnings. Both sides claim to be defending marginalized individuals, groups, or views. However, by focusing almost exclusively on a continuum of more vs. less speech, both sides misdiagnose the problem, and therefore miss opportunities for more meaningful dialogue and more lasting and productive outcomes. A better approach might be to recognize that the recent incidents, and college and university communities themselves, are about more than free speech.

A Different Space

At Scholars at Risk (SAR)—a network of over 450 higher education institutions in thirty-five countries—we work primarily with the extreme cases where higher education scholars, students, administrators, and leaders suffer intentional violence or coercion because of their research, teaching, speaking, or publishing. A historian receives death threats for her book contradicting the national historical narrative favored by the ruling party. A feminist scholar is charged with blasphemy for exploring the female voice in ancient sacred texts. A legal scholar is imprisoned for a conference presentation urging the necessity of constitutional reform. These cases involve not only a breakdown in free speech, but a breakdown in the rule of law. SAR may respond with direct assistance for threatened individuals (such as arranging a temporary position somewhere in our network) or by raising awareness (as through our Academic Freedom Monitoring Project).

This work is motivated by more than a humanitarian impulse to help colleagues, although that is reason enough. The universities, colleges, and individuals in our network strongly believe that the higher education space is different from other political or public spaces, and worth protecting. How is it different? In the words of a former Palestinian university president at a SAR workshop some years ago, in the higher education space we “leave our guns at the door.” Some of the examples above, of course, violate this principle in the literal sense, as do some US incidents: A professor is forced to decline an invitation to speak at a US campus after anonymous death threats when the university is unable to guarantee the absence of firearms in the lecture hall due to local concealed-carry laws. Minority students are threatened with violence over social media if they come to campus.

But leaving our “guns at the door” means more than the literal. It means that the campus is a place that allows the widest range of perspectives to enter, with the understanding that opinions will be questioned, challenged, tested, and even rejected, often publicly, and that violence, coercion, shame, or slander are never permissible. Quality of information, reason, and persuasion, refereed by experts according to the accepted methods of their disciplines, should win over physical strength, volume, sensationalism, wealth, and personal or political contacts. This principle is operationalized through core higher education values, articulated by UNESCO (1997) and others as equitable access, autonomy, academic freedom, accountability, and social responsibility.

Many incidents on US campuses and abroad reflect a breakdown in understanding of these values and their interrelatedness—more precisely, an oversimplification that privileges one value over others. An example abroad might be South African students demanding serious examination of the costs of higher education (a laudable recognition of the values of equitable access and social responsibility) but a minority among them adopting violent tactics such as attempted arson (a violation of social responsibility leading to an erosion of institutional autonomy and academic freedom).

Privileging Free Speech

US examples tend to privilege academic freedom or its analog, free speech. Some student protesters demand to be heard, but do not want to engage in dialogue. Some physically disrupt talks by those whose views they abhor so as to deny others the opportunity to hear them. Faculty members may dismiss speech/civility codes or trigger warnings out of hand as violations of academic freedom, without fully wrestling with the inclusivity concerns of a much more ethnically, economically, and otherwise diverse generation of students. Higher education leaders and administrators may dismiss concerns about international activities, employment practices, or investments as intrusions on institutional autonomy or academic freedom, giving short shrift to the social or human rights implications of institutional conduct.

This privileging of academic freedom or free speech above other core values is a trap that makes satisfying outcomes difficult to achieve. This is because it neglects the important difference between higher education (campus) and other public spaces (“the street”). On the street, speech should be generally free from constraint. It is not required to serve a purpose; it need not form a dialogue or an argument; it may or may not justify itself with data or evidence. While there are some limits in every locality—you can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theater—encouraging more speech is the norm, even if that speech does not add much to the public square or the marketplace of ideas.

On campus, however—while it should be similarly free from constraint, especially from restrictions imposed from outside—speech is expected to serve a purpose: the pursuit of deeper understanding and truth. Toward this purpose, speech on campus is expected to link up with other speech, to foster dialogue, and to support an argument. It is constrained to justify itself with data, evidence, or other supporting material, which in turn is subject to rigorous examination. Speech on campus has the same limits as on the street and then some—you still can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded lecture hall, but neither can you present false data or evidence or expect your opinions to be accepted without examination. On campus, encouraging more speech is still a goal; but refining, filtering, and curating speech are paramount goals. These are the hallmarks of quality teaching and research, the functions that academic freedom is designed to protect, and the means by which the university serves the public square and the marketplace of ideas.

A Values Framework

Pure “more speech” arguments forget the difference between speech on campus and speech on the street, and that makes it very difficult to achieve deeper understanding and truth. This is because as broad as a speech frame is, it implicitly disfavors perspectives that are more accurately represented through other values: debates about trigger warnings that use a speech-centric frame may undervalue legitimate concerns of survivors of highly traumatic events. These claims may be more readily examined through a lens that includes equitable access and social responsibility.

Moreover, because a speech-centric frame tends to elicit all-or-nothing responses (such as “we don’t do trigger warnings here”), it may reduce the range of possible outcomes. A broader values framework may allow for greater nuance or tailoring (e.g., reasonable accommodations for individual victims of trauma on a case-by-case basis), without eroding core speech/academic freedom concerns. Similarly, addressing challenging issues such as speech/civility codes and microaggressions with due regard for both speech/academic freedom and equitable access may lead to more nuanced and inclusive discourse that can add legitimacy to outcomes even if there are no material differences in resulting policies or practices.

Broadening the frame to include all core values will help. But this is not enough. We must also shift from a reactive mode—discussing values only after an incident or dispute—to a proactive one. This is the goal of SAR’s Promoting Higher Education Values Project, which encourages institutions to develop cultures and norms of practice that uphold core values before crises arise. Examples of such practices might include (1) widely and regularly disseminating any statement of values and related processes; (2) including values content in staff and student induction processes; (3) encouraging research, course offerings, and trainings on values-related issues; (4) circulating a regular values assessment letter or report and creating opportunities to discuss it with stakeholders; and (5) appointing a values ombudsperson empowered to raise values issues proactively. Such measures can make a big difference. They can help to develop a common vocabulary for discussing what are often complex and competing claims. And they can help to build social and political capital that leaders may draw upon when the next values-related incident arises.

Those who see the recent rash of free speech-related incidents on US campuses as a sign of the decline of higher education and of a generation of coddled students are misdiagnosing the problem. These incidents might just be an opportunity and a cry for more: More inclusivity. More nuance. More understanding. And yes, more speech. We owe it to ourselves, our higher education institutions, and society to capture this opportunity. To paraphrase President Ford’s 1975 address, “Let us make [US higher education] once again and for centuries more to come what it has so long been—a stronghold and a beacon-light of [free inquiry and discourse] for the whole world.”

All views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and not those of Scholars at Risk or its member institutions. Scholars at Risk invites comments and expressions of interest at scholarsatrisk@nyu.edu. For more information on the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, visit http://monitoring.academicfreedom.info.


Ford, Gerald R. 1975. “President Gerald R. Ford’s Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress Reporting on the State of the Union.” Address presented at the US Capitol, January 15. https://fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/speeches/750028.htm.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). 1997. “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel.”  November 11. http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13144&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.

Robert Quinn is Executive Director of the  Scholars at Risk Network, New York University.

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