The Chancellor’s Massmail on Free Speech Who Is It Talking About?

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Returning from a meeting of the American Association of Universities (AAU), Chancellor Jones shared a joint statement that was crafted at the meeting in regard to free speech on campus. The statement starts out by saying that people whose views are deemed by some members of the campus community to be “odious” and “disgraceful” should be allowed to express those viewpoints “free of disruption, intimidation, and violence.” It seems like the message is about how to handle a visit from someone like the white nationalist Richard Spencer. It seems to be saying that we should let Richard Spencer speak and not disrupt the event or use violence to prevent it from happening. The point is that we should not let our repulsion at Richard Spencer’s racist views turn us against the principle of free speech. We don’t have to go to his speech and we certainly don’t have to give him an open-minded hearing, but we shouldn’t shout him down or use violence to prevent him from coming to campus. Fair enough.

But is this really what the Chancellor’s message is saying?

In the very next paragraph, the message says that “we need to protect our communities from those who seek to promote conflict, rather than conversation, debate, advocacy.” The message then says that “substantive and non-violent speech” deserves to be not only “fully protected” but also “welcomed in our society.” This is a very different recommendation than the first paragraph contained. Now, in this paragraph, we seem to have switched to criticizing people who “promote conflict rather than conversation” and prevent “substantive and non-violent speech” from being “welcomed in our society.” Who are these people and what is the “substantive and non-violent speech” that is not “welcomed in our society”? No one would say that Richard Spencer’s speech is “substantive” or that it should be “welcomed in our society.” Who are the people whose freedom of speech is being threatened by those who “promote conflict rather than conversation.” What is going on here?

Clearly, this new message is taking sides, and is meant to take sides. It’s no longer a message to students that says: “We understand that you believe that Richard Spencer and his ilk advance odious and disgraceful viewpoints, but we shouldn’t respond by infringing on their freedom of speech.” That was the first paragraph. That message is replaced by another message. The second paragraph is basically telling students: “You are not willing to listen to substantive and non-violent viewpoints that differ from yours and you are promoting conflict rather than conversation.” A not-so-subtle shift has happened. Suddenly, the same students who (rightly) find white nationalism “odious” and “disgraceful” are the ones who are blamed for “promoting conflict rather than conversation.” Does the Chancellor want students to have a conversation with white nationalists? Is the speech of Richard Spencer “substantive and non-violent”? Of course, that’s not what the Chancellor is saying. I’m certain that Chancellor Jones would never sit down with Richard Spencer for a conversation about the threat to “white civilization” in America.

So what is going on? This message is crafted to appease the groups that Alan Dershowitz has made it his personal crusade to defend in his “free speech on campus” tours. Dershowitz has said that “college campuses are unsafe for people on the right and Christians and Jews who support Israel” (MSNBC interview, December 2017). The Chancellor’s message was basically putting out the welcome mat for Alan Dershowitz, who visited the campus at the invitation of the Gies College of Business and the Chabad House. In effect, the Chancellor is saying: “Alan, we’re on your side. We want to make our campus safe for people on the right and Christians and Jews who support Israel.”

If the Chancellor were serious about free speech, he would join forces with the AAUP and fight back against the legislation that has passed in eight states and is pending in seven others, including Illinois, that would set up a panel of state officials to oversee freedom of speech at public universities. This “Campus Free Speech” legislation is promoted by the Goldwater Institute, a think tank and legal advocacy group funded in part by the Koch brothers. To learn more about the real threat to free speech on campus and the Goldwater Institute legislative agenda, read the AAUP online journal, Academe, and the blog post on this topic (https://academeblog.org/2017/02/06/the-flaws-of-the-campus-free-speech-act/). The blog post makes that the point that freedom of speech is about fairness of procedures, not balancing the content of right and left speech. Yes, we should protect freedom of speech, but not because “substantive” viewpoints that need to be “welcomed in our society” are not being listened to. That is a political judgment that may or may not be true. We should protect freedom of speech because we adhere to the rule of law, and free speech is enshrined in our Constitution. The Chancellor’s message confuses the reason why we should embrace free speech on campus with the old adage, “There’s always two sides to every question.” The Chancellor’s message is saying, “It’s good to give both sides of a question a fair hearing.”

But that’s not why we should support free speech on campus. The old adage is false. There is only one side to the question, “Should we reinstate chattel slavery?” But the other side has the right to express itself because the Constitution grants freedom of speech regardless of its content, so long as it does no immediate harm. The claim that Alan Dershowitz defends, that campuses have favored one side over another (left over right; secularists over Christians; anti-Zionists over Zionists) and that both sides should be “welcomed,” is a political judgment, but it is being promoted under the banner of freedom of speech. This politicizes the law and threatens to undermine the very thing that the Chancellor’s message claims to be defending. We must clearly and loudly commit ourselves to the political and social causes that many of us who are faculty and students at this university believe in. We do not need to welcome viewpoints that we find odious, nor do we need to turn our campus into a neutral space where everyone has his or her time at the microphone so that every viewpoint is balanced by its opposite viewpoint. But we do need to respect the rule of law and the rights granted to all under the Constitution. If we can’t stand up for free speech with the right arguments, we give the supporters of the Goldwater Institute ammunition for their claim that a liberal campus climate is, by definition, one that violates free speech. They will establish government oversight panels (as they have in eight states so far) to make sure that everyone feels “safe” on campus. That’s not good for freedom of speech and it’s not good for our students.

Bruce Rosenstock is Professor of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a member of the Campus Faculty Association and the AAUP.

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