Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Free speech and academic freedom have long exposed cultural and political tensions on college campuses. But in the past few years, those who would restrict free speech have seemingly gotten a foothold in the debate that they otherwise would have been laughed out of. In other words, they have managed to start a debate over long settled principles. They have been able to convince some universities and professors to include warnings or triggers on their syllabi. These triggers would warn students in advance about topics, books, and issues that they might find objectionable or offensive. Some students have even managed to get themselves exempted from certain readings and assigned alternatives. Some have complained to their legislators about being exposed to ideas they did not like and managed to get them to punish public universities by defunding certain programs. Some have gotten invited speakers uninvited because they were too controversial.
They now seem to have gotten the attention of presidential hopeful, Ben Carson, who appears to be taking up their cause. Speaking of his policy proposals for the Department of Education, he said: “I think the Department of Education should monitor institutions of higher education for political bias and withhold federal funding if it exists,” Carson told Las Vegas radio host Heidi Harris. Of course, political bias is not confined to one party, but the notion that a politician, rather than an academic, would be the arbiter of political bias is problematic to say the least, particularly if that politician comes from a party that has tended to resist things like the expansion of civil rights, the protection of free speech, and the calls for politically correct discourse.
Interestingly, President Obama jumped into the conversation this week. At a town hall meeting, he pushed back against Carson and the censorship occurring on campuses. In response to Carson, he said:
The idea that you’d have somebody in government making a decision about what you should think ahead of time or what you should be taught, and if it’s not the right thought, or idea, or perspective or philosophy, that person would be — they wouldn’t get funding, runs contrary to everything we believe about education. That might work in the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t work here. That's not who we are.
As to the students, he said
It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, "You can’t come because I'm too sensitive to hear what you have to say." That’s not the way we learn either.
The real story here is simply that the debate is occurring. That it is occurring is evidence that free speech is not so free or appreciated. It shows how much more work we has educators have to do.