Free speech on campus: Can it be saved? | WHAT IF?

Free speech on campus: Can it be saved? | WHAT IF?

August 26, 2019 30 By Stanley Isaacs


In recent years, the foundational values
of free speech and open inquiry have increasingly come under assault at
America’s colleges and universities. Limits on speech and expression have
become ingrained in campus culture, largely due to super-sized campus
policies intended to regulate conduct. Beyond a simple free speech issue, this
type of censorship affects the academic environment. When campus culture prevents
students and researchers from participating in spirited debate or
pursuing original research, the very purpose of the university – the quest for
truth – is at risk. So it got us thinking: What if there was a way to protect free speech and free inquiry on America’s college campuses? A popular proposal goes something like this: what if we just cut off all public funds, including student
aid, to institutions judged to limit constitutionally protected speech? Well,
there are problems with this approach. First: restricting federal funds like
student aid unfairly harms students financially and limits future students’
educational access. Second: it gives the federal government far too much power
over the choices of individual institutions and invites bureaucratic
meddling. And third: it compromises the value we place on a wide array of
colleges with different cultures. Alternatively, a better approach
recognizes that colleges and universities are not just places of
classroom learning. They are also research enterprises
generously supported with taxpayer funds. Since World War II, the federal
government has used colleges and universities as subcontractors,
dispersing billions annually for research in medicine, defense, energy, and much more. From the beginning, these grants and contracts have been funded
with the expectation that institutions receiving taxpayer dollars would adhere
to the tenets of responsible science, including the assurance that research
questions, methods, and reporting would be guided by an unwavering commitment to
free inquiry. As Vannevar Bush explained in a 1945
report to President Harry Truman, the freedom of inquiry must be preserved
under any plan for government support of science. Likewise, in a 1948 speech that gave rise to the National Science Foundation,
President Truman himself defended the necessity of academic free inquiry,
stating the “scientific method is characterized by open-mindedness,
honesty, perseverance, and, above all, by an unflinching passion for knowledge and
truth. Underlying this subcontracting relationship was the assumption that
institutions of higher ed would respect and defend the freedom to pursue the
truth wherever it may lead. Traditionally, the fear has revolved around government interference into academia. In their famed 1915 General Declaration of
Principles, the American Association of University Professors, led then by John
Dewey, asserted that the university must be an inviolable refuge from the tyranny
of public opinion, stating “It is precisely this function of the
university which is most injured by any restriction upon academic freedom.” Today, however, it’s often universities themselves that pose the threat to free
speech and free inquiry. On its own, this imbalance is a problem for robust debate
around important questions regarding race relations, immigration, social policy,
and much more. After all, researchers like anyone else can fall prey to
confirmation bias and the more ideologically uniform a research
environment, the greater the risk of that bias going unrecognized, being reinforced,
and ultimately tainting results, but even more worrisome is when such
ideological uniformity is reflected in formal campus policies and practices
that stifle free speech and debate. Many campus speech policies are
unconstitutionally overbroad, hopelessly vague, and enable viewpoint
discrimination. For example, Middlebury College’s general conduct standards state
that behavior that “demonstrates contempt for the generally accepted values of the
intellectual community is prohibited.” Such policies have created a chilling effect
on campuses, where, in one survey, 54% of students reported that
they have stopped themselves from sharing an opinion in class at some
point since they began college because they were fearful of what classmates
would say. So, how do we protect campus speech from government and the Academy
all at once? The United States distributes nearly $40 billion a year
in research funds to colleges and universities. Now, while that number pales
in comparison to the roughly $160 billion that Washington distributes to higher
education for student aid, federal research funds constitute some of the
most prized dollars in academia. Put simply, Washington should require
that universities protect free speech and inquiry to get access to federal
research funding. It makes sense! Universities have an incentive to get
federal dollars and the federal government has an incentive to get
honest research for taxpayer funds. So, we propose the following: only
colleges and universities that allow all constitutionally protected speech would
be eligible to receive federal research funds. Schools which receive federal
research funds would have to sign a contract binding them to protect free
speech and free inquiry on campus to the best of their ability. Schools that fail
to honor their assurances may be subject to forfeit the remainder of the federal
research funds they receive and could become ineligible for
future federal research funding. Note: we are not telling colleges and
universities that they can’t have restrictive speech codes that suit their ideological slant.
However, when it comes to research funded by taxpayers, it is important that
institutions are committed to open inquiry and create environments where hypotheses
can be generated and research questions can be pursued freely, regardless of the
feathers they ruffle or the feelings they hurt. Why will this policy work? Well,
first of all, colleges and universities are risk-averse. They would be likely to
comply with federal directives, much as they did with the Obama administration’s
informal guidance so Title IX, simply because they like to minimize the number
of hassles that they wind up involved with. But more importantly, this policy would also put pressure on schools to create an
environment that retains the best students and researchers in the natural
and applied sciences. Today, it is students and faculty in the social
sciences who are most likely to demand speech codes, while their quieter peers
in other fields often go along for the ride. But in an environment where
research funding is linked to free speech, universities just might see
top-notch faculty in the hard sciences start to speak up or depart for
universities that are now eligible to receive federal research funds.
Our policy would level the playing field between activism and free inquiry on
campus by giving serious researchers and administrators skin in the free speech game. Of course, we’re not suggesting
that we couldn’t also explore other remedies, political or otherwise,
but by insisting that colleges abide by their historic ideals,
we might just nudge the balance of power on campus back towards those
seeking the unrestrained pursuit of truth. What do you think can be done to
protect free inquiry on campus? Let us know in your comments. Also, let us
know what other topics you’d like our scholars to address in the “What If?”
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