Don't Cry 'Free Speech'
This response to the essay "Who's Afraid of Free Speech?" was commissioned by the Knight Institute. The views expressed are those of the author.
I am pretty sure that the Jesuit priests who taught in my high school would have given Thomas Healy’s essay “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?” high marks for ingenuity, a prized Jesuitical accomplishment.
I also suspect that they would have regarded the essay as falling under an oft-articulated stricture, namely that Persistent Perversity Provokes the Patient Pedagogue to Produce Particularly Painful Punishment.
Let us not detain ourselves with trifles — for example, in an abbreviated version of the essay published on TheAtlantic.com, Professor Healy makes an opening gambit that “Middlebury College’s decision to discipline 67 students who participated in a raucous and violent demonstration against conservative author Charles Murray brings closure” to that controversy. As Charles Murray himself noted, Middlebury’s “disciplinary response” to the incident was “pathetic” and, far from bringing “closure,” is “likely to encourage” more of the same.
But Professor Healy earlier contention was mere throat-clearing for his stunning main point: that in the name of free speech, “one can make a strong case that insults, shaming, delegitimizing, demonizing, and even social ostracism are all compatible with free speech, since it is not unreasonable for speakers to bear these consequences.”
Why? Because “under our free speech tradition, the crudest and least reasonable forms of expression are just as legitimate as the most eloquent and thoughtful.”
Let me advert to another Jesuit motto: “Never Deny, Seldom Affirm, Always Distinguish.” (I am not endorsing the whole of that admonition, by the way, merely applauding its spur to making distinctions.) Professor Healy, it is true, makes plenty of distinctions in his essay, and it is clear that part of his purpose is to complicate (not to say “pervert”) our taken-for-granted understanding of the much-discussed “crisis” of free speech on campus.
But, I suggest, he blurs a critical distinction that is deeply relevant to any discussion of the fate of free speech in our universities.
The distinction is between free speech (the right to peaceful political dissent) and academic freedom (the more limited right to pursue, teach, and publish about the truth). The fact that we choose to countenance neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, a famous case that professor Healy adduces, has very little bearing on how people should comport themselves on campus.
This is a distinction that is often lost in the commentary on the unmannerly behavior of pampered, grandstanding students and their enablers on campus. As the sociologist Edward Shils observed in an essay on this subject, academic freedom does not “extend to the conduct of political propaganda in teaching.” Academic freedom, Shils argued,
. . . is not the freedom of academic individuals to do just anything, to follow any impulse or desire, or to say anything that occurs to them. It is the freedom to do academic things: to teach the truth as they see it on the basis of prolonged and intensive study, to discuss their ideas freely with their colleagues, to publish the truth as they have arrived at it by . . . assiduous research.
A number of corollaries follow. One is that one should assess academic things according to academic or intellectual criteria, “regardless of the person’s political or religious beliefs, his or her sex, ethnic origin, personal qualities, kinship connections, friendship or enmity toward the individual or the work assessed.”
Shils also goes on to argue that although “Academic freedom includes political freedom,” it is nonetheless “desirable that teachers should not expound their own political or moral preferences and values in their classes,” and, if they do, that “they should take care to distinguish evaluative judgments from their statements of fact.”
The point is that academic life, like the rest of social life, unfolds within a frame of rules and permissions. At one end, there are things that one must (or must not) do; at the other end, there is rule of whim. The middle range, in which behavior is neither explicitly governed by rules but is not entirely free, is that realm governed by what the British jurist John Fletcher Moulton, writing (in The Atlantic as it happens) in the early 1920s, called “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” It is a realm in which not law, not caprice, but virtues such as duty, fairness, judgment, and taste hold sway. In a word, it is the “domain of Manners,” which “covers all cases of right doing where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.”
A good index of the health of any social institution, Moulton argued, is its allegiance to the strictures that define this middle realm. “In the changes that are taking place in the world around us,” he wrote, “one of those which is fraught with grave peril is the discredit into which this idea of the middle land is falling.” One example was the abuse of free speech in political debate: “We have unrestricted freedom of debate,” say the radicals [in Moulton’s analogy]: “We will use it so as to destroy debate.”
The repudiation of obedience to the unenforceable is at the center of what makes academic life (and not only academic life) today so noxious. The contraction of the “domain of Manners” creates a vacuum that is filled on one side by increasing regulation — speech codes, rules for all aspects of social life, efforts to determine by legislation (from the right as well as from the left) what should follow freely from responsible behavior — and on the other side by increased license. More and more, it seems, academia (like other aspects of elite cultural life) has reneged on its compact with society.
That, to my mind, is the deeply disturbing lesson of the infantilized bad-behavior recently on display at Yale, Middlebury, Berkeley, Evergreen, and elsewhere. I am not sure that Professor Healy’s nuanced essay registers that lesson with sufficient vigor.