Why I have resigned from the Committee on Freedom of Expression

Donald Brand
Professor of Political Science

At the beginning of the 2018/2019 academic year I was invited to join a committee of faculty, administrators and students being formed to draft a philosophy statement concerning freedom of expression at Holy Cross. We began our deliberations mindful of the fact that disturbances had arisen on other campuses in response to the invitation of controversial speakers. A specific example cited in our initial discussions was the response of a group of Middlebury College students to invited speaker Charles Murray. In that case students tried to prevent Murray from speaking and injured one of the professors who had invited him to campus, sending her to the hospital. Ironically, that professor was a staunch critic of Murray who had intended to challenge his thesis in a give-and-take discussion. Hoping that we could avoid a scenario like the one at Middlebury, I was eager to join the committee. I assume an invitation was extended to me because I defend free speech on college campuses and, as co-director of the Charles Carroll program (https://college.holycross.edu/projects/charles_carroll/co_directors.htm ),  invite speakers to campus whose views challenge dominant opinions.

It quickly became apparent that my views on this topic differed greatly from most, in not all, of my fellow committee members. I recommended that we adopt verbatim a policy drafted by the faculty of the University of Chicago and subsequently embraced by the faculty at Princeton University and a number of other colleges and universities [See https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/FOECommitteeReport.pdf ]. This policy statement is a ringing endorsement of free speech on campus and an acknowledgment that a robust protection of free speech is an indispensable precondition for a liberal arts education. The principles were drafted by University of Chicago Law School professor Geoffrey Stone, a self-professed political liberal. While the University of Chicago and Princeton are research universities as well as undergraduate liberal arts colleges, the case for free speech applies to both endeavors.

As is often the case serving on small committees, the desire to reach a consensus can lead participants to moderate their principles and try to find a viable compromise. In this spirit I agreed to the draft policy which has been circulated to the college community. I made concessions to others in the mistaken belief that the differences I had with my fellow committee members were more pronounced at the abstract, “philosophic” level than they would be concerning judgments about specific cases. The Heather MacDonald controversy and the failure of our institution to respond appropriately to that episode has demonstrated to me that I was mistaken. Students who temporarily occupy seats merely in order to prevent other students from hearing a speaker are not exercising their right of free speech. Would we argue that students who prevent a speaker from speaking by continuous shouting are exercising their right to free speech? Fortunately, the protest was peaceful and no one was injured.  The appropriate college response should have been a simple reprimand and engagement with the protesters. It was a teachable moment, but no lessons can be learned if the college doesn’t defend the principle that arguments should be met by counterarguments.

Heather MacDonald’s The Diversity Delusion challenges many of the tenets that have been used to justify diversity policies on college campuses. She offers a generally coherent argument, citing social science research and statistics to support her claims. Countervailing evidence can certainly be offered to dispute her thesis. I find myself agreeing with some of her points and disagreeing with others; but I have no doubt she deserves a hearing. The college should be commended for allowing her to speak, but the danger posed by the proposed policy on freedom of expression is that it provides grounds for not inviting speakers like her in the future. It may be countered that the college should never invite a racist speaker like David Duke to speak, and that we need a policy to justify such an exclusion. This is a red herring. David Duke would never be invited to speak on this campus, and we do not need a policy change to preclude his invitation. Heather MacDonald is no David Duke, and the exclusion of conservative speakers on college campuses is a disturbing national trend which calls for an emphatic defense of freedom of speech.

Our existing statutes state the following under Section B of our academic freedom article: “As an institution of higher learning, dedicated to the pursuit of truth wherever it may be found, the College encourages free access to ideas, as a matter of policy. Accordingly, the College shall extend its hospitality to any speaker invited by a recognized campus organization or department.” By contrast, the proposed statement serves to constrain rather than protect free speech, since it describes the “challenge” of opening ourselves to various perspectives as one that “can only be fruitful in a context of mutual respect and regard which aim to enhance the common good.” Who decides whether a speaker meets those criteria? While assurance may be offered that the proposed policy on freedom of expression will not interfere with academic freedom, that would only be true of academic freedom narrowly construed. The proposed policy would not prevent professors from pursuing a research agenda of their choice, at least for now, nor would it contemplate restricting what professors can say in the classroom. However, as the existing statutes note, academic freedom extends to invited speakers. Attempts to limit the speakers we can bring to campus is an infringement of academic freedom properly understood.

It is now apparent to me that there are unbridgeable differences of opinion in our committee and that the draft policy being circulated fails to provide adequate protections for free speech. There are clearly people on this campus who believe that Heather MacDonald didn’t meet the criteria for acceptable speech. The Freedom of Expression: Rights and Responsibilities Philosophy Statement represents the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. While it sounds innocuous [who is opposed to mutual respect and human dignity], it provides a rationale for restricting speech that should be allowed. In the name of diversity, it would narrow genuine intellectual diversity on campus. It should also be noted that a paternalistic attempt to restrict speech to protect some students from psychological offense is in fact inconsistent with the dignity of the students ostensibly being protected. The dignity of students is truly served by allowing them to hear views they may find offensive and to make arguments to the contrary. As a member of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the College of the Holy Cross has adopted as official College policy the principles regarding academic freedom formulated by the American Association of University Professors. Those who are interested in this issue should consult the AAUP statement “Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes (https://www.aaup.org/report/freedom-expression-and-campus-speech-codes). In addition, please  consult the AAUP statement on Freedom of Expression and Outside speakers (https://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-outside-speakers). I urge my fellow faculty members to reject the current proposal and leave our statutes unchanged.

Categories: Opinions

Tagged as:

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s