Protecting campus open expression is key to maintaining American democracy, but the threats to campus speech are different than what you may have heard. A few years ago, concerns about “snowflake” students were all the rage. Pundits and columnists lambasted students for shouting down or protesting speakers they disagreed with from Berkeley to Middlebury, and some claimed that free speech was under threat as a result of students’ hyper-sensitivity.
Students’ motives and actions continue to be questioned, but now that most students have found more effective ways to express their often-justified concerns about speakers and events — including using humor, raising tough questions at the event, or protesting visibly but without shutting down speakers — the public debate has moved on to focus on faculty — what they can say in class, on social media, in public talks, and whether they are brainwashing their students with their political beliefs.
Locally, you may recall the 2017 incident involving University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who lamented the decline of “1950s values” in a widely read Inquirer op-ed, and followed up with statements that many heard as racist. There was also a flap involving Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher, who left his job last year after being repeatedly threatened over a controversial tweet in which he ironically called for “white genocide.”
More recently, Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill was thrust into this spotlight, after a statement he made at the United Nations drew fire from critics who believed that his criticism of Israel included a rallying cry for its destruction. He lost his job as a CNN contributor, and some called for his firing from the university.
Temple has rightly not punished Hill, despite calls from its board chairman to fire or otherwise reprimand him. These calls should concern those who are committed to campus free speech.
I am not only a Penn professor and author of the book Free Speech on Campus, but also a Jewish immigrant from Israel, and I support the continued existence of the state (though I remain critical of many of its policies). But even before Hill’s expression of remorse, I did not see his U.N. statement as reason for workplace retaliation, and especially so when the workplace is a university.
Free-speech issues on college campuses are exacerbated when those outside campus — politicians with their own agendas, members of the media, provocateurs — fail to recognize how speech operates on campus, and treat campuses as if they are just another corner of the public square, or worse: as part of the artificial “point-counterpoint” structure common on network TV.
College campuses are professional spaces where ideas are tested and disseminated. At their best, they are committed to fostering open debate and free expression, training students to consider their views and focus on truth and evidence.
Public scrutiny fails to recognize that open expression is a key aspect of everyday life on campus, from classrooms to student events, and that campuses are easy flash points for free-speech debates precisely because they are open when it comes to inviting diverse and challenging views. In fact, there are no other institutions in the American public sphere today that are as keen on protecting and promoting free speech. Private employers can fire employees on a whim; the boundaries of speech online are tested every day by users of private platforms (like Twitter, YouTube, and others) and by the platforms themselves; traditional media and journalists are often under attack. All the while, campuses around the country continue to negotiate and push the boundaries of speech.
The problem is that these institutions, protective of free speech as they tend to be, are beholden to outside stakeholders who do not always understand the role that open expression plays on campus and how it is used to promote the broader mission of higher education.
We see this in Philadelphia-area institutions as well as around the country — a chancellor in Wisconsin reprimanded by his superiors for inviting an adult film actress to speak; a professor fired — and reinstated by the court — at the University of Kentucky for expressing critical political views, and at Moreno Valley College in California after challenging students’ views; in Canada, the provincial government in Ontario has declared a free-speech crisis and set a new list of requirements for the province’s colleges and universities.
Recognizing the importance of campus independence means that free-speech advocates should push back against legislative efforts to prohibit student protest, such as the ERIC-sponsored legislation in Wisconsin and bills elsewhere that threaten protesting students with expulsion. Protest is a protected form of speech and an important aspect of learning to organize, and to develop and express one’s views.
Supporting that students have a right to protest is one way to promote campus free speech. So is supporting professors’ right to express their political views outside of class.
Those who worry about threats to the First Amendment on campus should call on trustees and board members to refrain from trying to silence professors for views they don’t share. They should pressure administrators to expand the realm of open expression on campus, rather than call for an artificial balancing of views. They should push back against efforts by the federal government to censor speech, as they do when they lump together all criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Semitic and require that such speech be censored or punished.
Clearly universities and colleges play a public role, and need to remain accountable and responsive to the public through students, parents, alums, legislatures, and regulators. But to allow students to learn, and professors to research and to prepare students for civic life, campus should be recognized for its unique position in supporting the First Amendment —rather than treated as a pawn in the culture wars.