Who’s really placing limits on free speech?
At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race. As a faculty member who focuses on how public organizations are managed, I hear a great deal about the dangers of political correctness in higher education. Several of Wisconsin’s elected officials have joined the growing chorus of demands for better protections for free speech on campus, even as they fail to recognize how their own politicized approach to managing campuses poses a much more fundamental risk to free speech.
For example, Steve Nass, a state senator from Whitewater, has urged university leaders not to give way to “the political correctness crowd demanding safe spaces, safe words, universal apologies for hurt feelings, and speech/thought police.” But last July, Senator Nass also sent a letter to university leaders to complain about an “offensive” essay assignment on gay men’s sexual preferences. A few days ago he said that a university program that explored masculinity “declares war on men” after asking, “Will we have the courage to reform the U.W. system in the 2017-19 biennial budget?”
Senator Nass is not alone. A state representative heading a committee that oversees higher education asked for the cancellation of a course that examined white identity called “The Problem of Whiteness” and the dismissal of its instructor. The representative, Dave Murphy, said the course was “adding to the polarization of the races in our state.” If the university “stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with U.W.-Madison.” Mr. Murphy also promised to direct his staff to screen courses in the humanities “to make sure there’s legitimate education going on.”
These examples show what’s being left out of a narrative about a crisis of campus speech that is becoming widely accepted. In this story, there is a battle between the traditional values of free speech and identity politics, with tolerance for disagreement being erased by an insistence on recognizing micro-aggressions, safe spaces and trigger warnings. Controversial speakers are heckled or disinvited.
It’s true that these battle lines are drawn across all campuses to one degree or another, but what many people don’t realize is that they are the most pressing concerns only for elite private institutions like Oberlin and Yale.
This one-sided representation of campus speech doesn’t reflect my 14 years teaching in large public institutions in Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin. In that time, no student has ever demanded that my classes include a trigger warning or asked for a safe space. But my colleagues and I have been given much more reason to worry about the ideological agendas of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards. Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate. One group has much more power than the other.
Faculty members conducting research on social or environmental issues that does not align with views of the party controlling the State Legislature may prefer to keep their heads down rather than speak out. At the University of North Carolina, the board of governors closed a privately funded research center that studied poverty; its director had criticized state elected officials for adopting policies that he argued amounted to “a war on poor people.” Amid broader budget cuts here in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, without warning or explanation, tried to yank all the state funding for a renewable energy research center.
On both private and public campuses, instructors who discuss race, gender, class, reproductive rights, elections or even just politics can find themselves subjected to attack by conservative groups like Media Trackers or Professor Watchlist. Faculty members in public institutions also have to worry about the possibility of having their email searched via Freedom of Information law requests. The ultimate audience for such trawling is lawmakers, who set the rules for public institutions. Indeed, a Media Trackers employee whose job included writing negative profiles of Wisconsin professors recently took a position with a state senator who likes to attack universities as being unfriendly to free speech.
After having seen tenure protections weakened in the last legislative session, Wisconsin professors now face the prospect that legislators will allow guns in classrooms, something our private peers will not have to contend with as they seek to protect a climate conducive to vigorous debate. Complaints about campus speech that focus on the demand for safe spaces in private settings are not just quaint by comparison; they create a blind spot about more serious threats to free speech. The risk is that legislators and others who see themselves as protectors of free speech on campus come to treat it as an à la carte menu. They lecture students that a higher education experience means listening to challenging perspectives, even as they ignore or actively support the erosion of the structural conditions that allow such speech.
If you truly believe that a university should be a place where people are empowered to pursue a fearless sifting and winnowing of ideas and evidence that benefit us all, I have a simple request: Look at the bigger picture beyond a few elite private institutions. For those of us who teach where most American students are educated, actual triggers are a more relevant danger than trigger warnings. Safe spaces are less threatening than shutting down teaching and research spaces.
Policy makers who accuse students of weakening campus speech should lead by example. Free speech on campus has survived and will survive challenges from students and other members of civil society. Its fate is much less certain when the government decides to censor discomforting views.