Opinions, Op-Ed

Our Free Speech Problem

As Olivia Strong reported in a Heights article last semester, Boston College fared extremely poorly in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) ranking of free speech on campus—151th out of the 159 colleges included in the survey. Our ranking in this widely disseminated study is embarrassing.  

Far more disturbing, though, is what the survey tells us about our campus climate: too many students are afraid to discuss controversial topics, and a significant minority think they are justified in preventing those they disagree with from speaking on campus.  

Equally distressing is the University’s curt response to FIRE’s ranking: “No comment.” Really?  No comment on a potential threat to our core principle of free speech and inquiry? Vigorous debate over controversial issues is an essential part of both scholarly research and a liberal arts education.  

The FIRE survey focuses on student culture, not administrative policies. It found that 59 percent of the 250 surveyed students are very or somewhat uncomfortable discussing controversial issues in class, and 44 percent are very or somewhat uncomfortable discussing controversial issues even in informal settings.

A disturbing number of students want to prevent those with whom they disagree with from speaking on campus: nearly half strongly oppose opening the campus to a speaker who argues that “abortion should always be illegal”; 58 percent strongly oppose allowing a speaker to claim that “BLM is a hate group”; and more than a third (36 percent) strongly oppose allowing a speaker to argue that COVID-19 lockdown orders “have infringed on our personal liberties.”

Even worse, 37 percent of those surveyed believe it is often or sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker—only 29 percent said it is never acceptable. Only a bare majority (53 percent) said it is never acceptable to bar other students from attending a campus speech. Although 73 percent said it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent a campus speech, 12 percent said it is sometimes acceptable, and another 15 percent said it is acceptable on rare occasions.  When that many students think it is okay to use violence to stifle speech, we are in trouble.

This is not a student culture that confidently debates controversial issues or believes in giving a forum to those who promote unpopular positions. All of us—faculty, students, and administrators—have a responsibility to do something about it.

The best thing students can do to address these problems is to reduce their use of social media.  Ignore it—don’t feed the frenzy. Since that is unlikely to happen, the next best thing is to recognize the difference between a political disagreement and a personal attack.  

Above all, students—and the rest of us—should remember what former President Barack Obama said about the purpose of free speech:

[It] is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And, you know, you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.

Faculty have an obligation to encourage and model civil discussion of controversial issues. We must assure students that we welcome dissent when presented with reasons, evidence, and civility. We need not give credence to silly claims such as “Trump won the 2020 election in a landslide.” But on matters such as affirmative action, gay marriage, gun control, school choice, use of nuclear weapons, the death penalty, abortion, and climate change, we must show our students that there are legitimate arguments on many sides of complex issues. We should present students with the best argument—pro, con, and in the middle. Many of us try to do so.  Clearly, we all need to do a better job.

As for administrators, it is time to recognize that stifling debate on issues such as abortion, single-sex marriage, and race does not succeed in promoting ideas favored by those in power. It only breeds resentment and cynicism about the University’s commitment to free speech.  

BC frequently promotes “student engagement” as a key element of “student formation.” If we want to engage students in the political life of our community, we should not restrict how they do so—as long as it is peaceful and civil. Yes, such activism can be messy. But as Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. explained, our political community “has a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” If we do not respect that commitment in a university, where will our students learn to revere it?

The University should also remove from its multiple trainings pseudo-scientific claims about the harm done by “microaggressions.” Equating speech with violence and suggesting that statements like “America is a melting pot” or “our Constitution is color-blind” are as dangerous as crude racial epithets undermines the very foundation of free speech. This leaves students walking on eggshells, afraid they might use terms that only recently have been deemed instruments of oppression. A recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center offers a number of useful suggestions on how college administrators can do a better job promoting free speech and inquiry.
Two final suggestions. First, BC should join the scores of colleges that have endorsed the University of Chicago’s statement of principles on free expression. Second, it should sponsor a major address by the country’s leading advocate of free inquiry, Jonathan Rauch, author of a book that should be read by every college student: The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Rauch is also a prominent defender of gay marriage. How better to demonstrate BC’s commitment to open debate over controversial issues?

January 27, 2022