An Argument for Academic Free Speech



Campus must allow variety of opinions

As our country’s political climate has become more polarized and divisive, college campuses have played host to some of the most vicious ideological battles. From those who are considered ‘ideological extremists,’ such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray, to journalists, such as Ann Coulter, speakers have been disinvited, protested, and driven off of campuses for holding views that some consider distasteful or contrarian.

In a climate of distrust and disdain for those who hold opposing views, it is important to recenter ourselves as an institution, calling to mind the philosophical basis for promoting freedom of speech at institutions of higher learning.

John Stuart Mill, in his work, On Liberty, writes, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.” Every limitation of speech reduces the number of avenues to the truth, thereby increasing the chances of missing the mark entirely.  

The concept of freedom of speech, especially in the context of the university, is fundamentally ordered towards the pursuit of truth. Notre Dame’s own mission statement reads, “The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth.” Universities serve the function of training young people to think for themselves, to become contributors to the marketplace of ideas and discerners of truth.

Those who stand in the way of free speech on college campuses often do so claiming that controversial people need not be heard before being rejected. They claim that in this day and age the views of controversial speakers can be found on the internet and in their various publications and therefore have no need to be represented on campuses where they run the risk of being offensive or off-putting especially to minority students.

Last spring, even in the wake of campus hostility towards Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Murray, Professor Philip Muñoz, the director of Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program, invited Charles Murray to present his latest book, Coming Apart, on campus.

Muñoz came under attack by colleagues and students alike, prompting him to write a response article, published by Real Clear Politics. Muñoz writes, “I believe what is most harmful to students—and, to speak candidly, most patronizing—is to ‘protect’ our students from hearing arguments and ideas they supposedly cannot handle.” To reject a point of view without hearing it is cowardly. If as an institution we believe we know the truth of a matter, then we should welcome dissent, feeling confident in our ability to extinguish it. Furthermore, if we claim to regard absolute truth as our ultimate goal, we should be eager to be disproven, as it will propel us ever closer to the realization of that goal.

In 1963, Robert Bork, a federal judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan, wrote, “The trouble with freedom is that it will be used in ways we abhor. It then takes great self-restraint to avoid sacrificing it, just this once, to another end … If, every time an intensely-felt moral principle is involved, we spend freedom, we will run short of it.” The fundamental freedom of speech is not worth sacrificing to appease the appetites of some regardless of which side of the aisle they represent.

The purpose of free speech at universities is to foster healthy civil discourse. Rather than silencing dissenters, if properly executed, presentations on controversial viewpoints can engage whole communities in valuable discussion. However, dissenters have repeatedly declined to engage in such healthy discourse, instead preferring to engage in a war on those who do not hold ‘mainstream’ opinions; their weapons, Molotov Cocktails, and performance hall hostage situations.

Rather than making strides towards greater equality, these activists represent a destructive culture of hostility towards the other. Unfortunately, their divisiveness doesn’t stop at controversial speakers. In his Washington Post viewpoint article, Steven Glick writes, “‘Privileged’ students are chastised for committing ‘microaggressions’ against their marginalized peers, while marginalized students are free to commit blatant acts of racial or gender bias against those they deem privileged.”

Perhaps it is the assumption of discrimination rather than goodwill that is to blame for the growing hostility and resentment in our society. The assumption of discrimination has trained students to keep an eye and ear out for anything and everything that could serve to offend, and it has produced a spirit of vigilante justice rather than an inclination to respond to offensive speech maturely.

Professor Muñoz concludes his response article with important food for thought for a University like Notre Dame which seeks to raise the standards of dialogue in pursuit of truth, “The price of a real education is hearing powerful arguments that make us realize our opinions are based on untested assumptions. Only then, when we realize that we do not know as much as we think we know, can genuine learning occur.”

Keenan White is a junior studying political science with minors in history and Constitutional Studies. To participate in some spirited free speech, you can email her at kwhite11@nd.edu.

Print Friendly