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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Cornell W. Clayton: Universities must face new free speech challenges

By Cornell W. Clayton Washington State University

After decades of student apathy, university administrators suddenly find themselves struggling with messy political speech controversies on their campuses.

Here in Eastern Washington, Gonzaga is in the news for denying a platform to Ben Shapiro, the right-wing provocateur whom College Republicans invited to speak. Administrators say Shapiro’s hateful rhetoric runs contrary to the Jesuit school’s mission and they worry protests will create safety concerns. Gonzaga faced a similar public backlash two years ago when it attempted to limit the audience for another speaker, the conservative conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza.

Meanwhile, WSU College Republicans constructed a mock “Trump Wall” on campus in 2016, angering fellow students and prompting demands that administrators do more to prevent hate speech at the school. The club’s president, James Allsup, subsequently participated in a white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia, spurring calls for his expulsion (calls rejected by WSU). Now the campus Republicans plan to repeat the wall stunt this spring to show support for President Trump, and, according to the current club president, “own the libs mercilessly.”

As these and similar incidents around the country demonstrate, there’s a new dynamic governing speech controversies at universities. For those who remember the 1960s, such controversies usually involved liberal anti-war and civil rights activists muzzled by conservative administrators and legislators. Today it is conservative agitators often denied campus platforms.

University leaders are not just concerned that today’s conservative agitators purposely offend groups like gays, immigrants and ethnic minorities. They also fear liability when events turn violent, as they did recently when a man was shot during a University of Washington talk by Milo Yiannopoulous, the pugnacious editor of Breitbart News.

Let’s be clear, many of these conservative provocateurs are less interested in a meaningful debate over ideas than in weaponizing and commodifying culture war issues. Right-wing groups like Turning Point USA train undergraduates to provoke fellow students, film the angry reactions on smartphones, and then post them to conservative media. Unlike earlier conservative literati like William F. Buckley or George Will, today’s popular conservative speakers – the Shapiros, Yiannopouloses, Ann Coulters or Tomi Lahrens – are not erudite intellectuals. Their talent lies more in earning millions for themselves by turning offensiveness into entertainment, complete with Hollywood-style marketing.

Of course, left-wing celebrities like Cornell West have also made lucrative careers prioritizing provocation-entertainment over serious intellectual engagement, but the provocation- entertainment industry is far more prominent today on the right.

Unfortunately, offensive rhetoric, left or right, often leads to the angry responses intended. Universities, which must protect campus safety, are thus forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars if they allow inflammatory events or speakers on campus. So it is little wonder that they seek to prevent them in the first place.

But by suppressing expression of ideas, administrators risk undermining the very mission of the university, and they play into right-wing media narratives that liberal academics coddle students and enforce political correctness on campus.

So how should universities confront the new free speech challenges?

First, we should never prevent expression simply because we believe certain ideas are wrong, offensive or heretical. Nor should protesters or hecklers be allowed to prevent speakers on campus.

The First Amendment prohibits public universities from restricting speech when it falls short of harassment, intimidation or threats of violence. Reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech are permitted, but these must be viewpoint neutral and aim at the orderly expression of ideas rather than suppression.

Private colleges do not face similar strictures under the First Amendment, but all universities, public and private, should recognize that suppressing ideas runs contrary to their core mission of promoting inquiry, discovery and the dissemination of knowledge. That mission requires unfettered thought and expression.

History is littered with individuals, from Galileo to Einstein, who risked lives and careers to promote ideas considered absurd or heretical at the time but which later turned out to be true. There simply is no way to define censorship-worthy ideas without jeopardizing genuinely important new thinking and social criticism. The goal of universities must be to make students safe for ideas, not ideas safe for students.

Second, we must make clear that allowing the expression of ideas is not endorsing them. Universities should not support, financially or otherwise, speakers who seek to insult or offend rather than inform and educate. Campus leaders should speak out against hateful speech on and off campus and explain why it’s inconsistent with the university’s values. The way to defeat bad ideas is to engage them and counter them with better ones.

Finally, we should help student groups to understand the difference between free speech and effective speech. If the goal is to persuade others to a point of view, not just reaffirm an identity, success is more likely to come through thoughtful and respectful dialogue than through offensive stunts and divisive rhetoric.

Insulting others is not just bad as communication strategy, it also misunderstands universities as special places with distinctive norms. Unlike popular culture, where shock and entertainment reign supreme, the currency of the academy is reason. The test for speech on campus, therefore, should not be whether it incites or amuses, but whether it enlightens and intellectually engages.

Cornell W. Clayton is the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

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