Keith Whittington: Tolerating Campus Dissent, Left and Right

WhittingtonThe reminders come nearly daily that tolerating freedom of speech and thought on college campuses—and in American society—is hard. It is very easy to say that we love freedom of speech in the abstract. It is much harder to adhere to that conviction when confronted with speech that we ourselves find to be, well, intolerable. When we encounter ideas or rhetoric that we find abhorrent, we are tempted to look for loopholes in the freedom of speech, to rationalize efforts to silence those who make us uncomfortable. This instinct is only natural and all too human, but it is an instinct at odds with the requirements of a liberal democracy and very much at odds with the ideals of a modern university.

The passing of Barbara Bush unfortunately became the occasion for another such reminder. An English professor at California State University, Fresno took to Twitter to celebrate the former first lady’s death, denouncing Bush as a “racist” and the mother of a “war criminal.” No stranger to provocative Twitter posts, the professor seemed to initially revel in the outrage she had generated before retreating from the increasingly intense public glare.

Fresno State president Joseph Castro was soon engaged in damage control, but in doing so did not represent the principles of either the university or the Constitution well. Castro did not content himself with reminding members of the public that the professor spoke only for herself and not the institution and did not even get around to emphasizing that universities are home to a large number of independent-minded individuals who hold a wide range of views and frequently disagree with one another. Instead, he chose to join the outraged public in denouncing a member of his own faculty for expressing views “contrary to the core values of our University,” which he identified as values of “empathy” and “respect.” The president subsequently emphasized that “we are all held accountable for our actions.” Indeed, the tweet was, in Castro’s view, “beyond free speech,” apparently because it was “disrespectful.”

Castro is, of course, correct that everyone is accountable for their actions. The question is what accounting is appropriate for appalling opinions expressed on a personal social media account. The speech of university professors can and should be criticized when it is wrong. Students and colleagues may choose to avoid quarrelsome professors. University professors are subject to discipline, and even termination, if they engage in professional misconduct. When American citizens who happen to be members of the faculty at a state university express unpopular political opinions in the public sphere, their speech is constitutionally protected from reprisals by state government officials, including university presidents. When members of the campus community spend their free time engaging in public debate, any university leader should refrain from asserting that “disrespectful,” uncivil, or odious comments are beyond the bounds of freedom of speech and subject to official sanction.

Universities should strive to nurture campus communities that are open to intellectual diversity and raucous debate. University professors should strive, even in their free time, to contribute positively to our social discourse and not to drag it further into the gutter. But freedom of speech is often messy and sometimes unpleasant. The disagreements among members of a diverse society are often deep and intense, and those disagreements will sometimes be expressed with passion. We are quick to recognize when others have offended us, but slow to recognize when we have given offense. We make greater progress in overcoming those disagreements and in making productive use of unconventional thinking, however, when we accept that we will sometimes be offended and we tolerate that with which we fervently disagree. Not every expressed idea is a good one. Not every disagreement will give way to greater insight. But intellectual and social progress is best made when we tolerate dissent rather than shout it down, when we criticize rather than punish, when we turn away from the provocateur rather than fan the flames.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.