At the University of Chicago, we’ve been discussing a report on sanctions for “disruptive conduct,” led by Randal Picker of the Law School. The committee had a difficult task: revising a code of conduct that itself derives from a university statute which only the Board of Trustees can amend, the so-called Statute 21, which hasn’t been revised since 1970. Lots of people wrote in to express their unhappiness with the very idea of sanctioning “disruptive conduct,” and saying, quite accurately, that sometimes disruptive conduct is the only way to get a point across. Here are my thoughts about the matter, prepared for today’s meeting of the Academic Senate, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to deliver them.
We are having a conversation about how the University should respond to disruptive incidents on campus: whether they should be treated as infractions of the student code, leading to disciplinary action, or should be accepted as free speech. This is naturally an issue about which each of us has passionate convictions. I want to address those convictions. I submit that the responses we have seen to the Picker Report are driven by implicit narratives—examples and scenarios of expected behavior. And many of these narratives are out of date. They miss an important point about the age in which we live: the age of free-speech trolling.
The U.S. Constitution, in the first of its Amendments, lays down that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Though this formulation is negative, subsequent legislation has established the freedom of speech as a right possessed by citizens and not to be abridged or restricted by other agencies, public or private, except under certain well-defined and limited circumstances. Other democracies have similar laws guaranteeing the rights of speech, publication and assembly. Such provisions are in fact one of the most reliable tests for determining whether a state is a democracy or not.
Yet nowadays “Free Speech” is a slogan often brandished by people who are in favor of, for example, expelling immigrants, denying the benefits of citizenship to black people, privatizing public education, demeaning cultures outside a fantasy construct of “Western Civilization,” rejecting the conclusions of natural science in regards to climate change, and so forth. How did this come about?
Recent incidents at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul and other institutions follow a regular pattern. This is not surprising, because these are anything but random events; they follow a pattern because they are scripted and designed to achieve a certain outcome.
A controversial right-wing speaker is invited to a campus to give a speech about the inferiority of certain races or cultures, or the vapidity of liberals, or how the men’s rights movement is imperiled by feminists. The invitation is issued, not by the university, but by a student group; nonetheless, it registers as “Anne Coulter speaking at Berkeley” or the like. And there is outrage. Students converge on the site of the event, or on the administration building in advance of the event, chanting, screaming, waving signs. Maybe someone breaks a window, occupies an office, punches a rival demonstrator, sets a police car ablaze. The demand—that So-and-So not be allowed to speak on campus—is met. Or it is not, and the person declines the invitation, citing safety issues. Or the person comes anyway, and is met by screaming, heckling, flag-burning, and what not. The incident goes on Fox News: “Out of control liberals deny free speech rights of others on college campus.” “The thought police in action.” “First Amendment shredded at City College.” This is exactly what was expected, and the so-called “liberals” and “leftists” have played exactly the role they were supposed to play. The anti-racist, anti-misogynist demonstrators have been comprehensively manipulated by the right-wing agitators. Meanwhile, campus precedent about free speech, picketing and the treatment of visitors haven’t provided adequate guidance for handling the situation.
The scenario that many of us have in mind is a 1960s newsreel. Students are on the march—against the war in Vietnam, for civil rights, for gender equality, for considerate treatment of the disabled. Touchy or unfeeling university administrators direct campus police to arrest them and then, after hearings of questionable objectivity, expel or fine them. We all agree that it is a terrible shame and we wish that the university had been more understanding of the scope and purposes of the First Amendment.
The present-day ruckus is of a different kind. The purpose is to create a disturbance and to score propaganda victories. The calculation is that if riots ensue, “leftists” (who are actually in their great majority simply non-fascist supporters of an inclusive democratic society) will appear as emotionally-uncontrolled, violent suppressors of free speech, colleges will appear as agents of suppression in the service of hysteria, and the “conservatives” (i.e. fascists) will appear as victims and reasonable adults, winning thereby support for their cause on Fox News and other channels of communication already lined up to spread this narrative. Whether the university steps in and breaks up the demonstration or stands by and lets it rage, Fox News gets a story about campus chaos either way. That is how “free speech” becomes a fascist slogan.
In such usages “free speech” is hypocritically deployed in the furtherance of only one kind of speech. These right-wing activists are not interested in guaranteeing anyone else’s right to speak freely, nor are they seeking to discover the truth through reasoned debate or to arrive at solutions for pressing problems in a way that excludes none of the stakeholders. Their aim is to create cover for actions on the part of political parties and corporate interests that shorten, impoverish and thwart the lives of people who might be standing in the way of their ideal, an America in which only certain people enjoy the benefits of self-government and prosperity. Denial of health care through fiscal and distributive means, punitive sentencing, restriction of the right to vote, defunding of public education, demonization of groups of citizens on the basis of their skin color, ethnic origin, language, religion, or political beliefs, and a raid on the public treasury are possible at present only when the dominance of the few is submerged in a pseudo-democratic veneer. As a step toward achieving those aims, it is important to discredit universities as bastions of free inquiry and disinterested knowledge. Once you have convinced the Fox News viewer that colleges are nests of spoiled snowflakes demanding to suppress speech that disagrees with them, you have made it easier to discredit research into climate change, gun usage, early-childhood poverty, epidemic disease, industrially-triggered cancers, and a host of other questions. By marginalizing universities, more space is won for irrational, self-interested, collectively harmful discourse. This is what free speech trolling is about. With so much at stake, we must look into the issue of free speech and disruptive conduct analytically, broadly, and with attention to consequences. I do not think that we are ready to do this without a further study to which every member of the university has an opportunity to contribute.
Free speech is important, yes, but I hold that it is never the goal of goals; every theory of the desirability of free speech posits that it is an avenue to reasoned outcomes in an unpredictable world and a channel for non-violent resolution of social conflicts. Those are the desirables which free speech seeks to guarantee. Universities have an important role as laboratories and life-size experiments in democratic governance, precisely because we are the place where speech is freest and no statement goes unquestioned. If there’s anything we need to safeguard, it’s that. But how to keep the “free-speech commons” open without delivering it into the hands of the hypocritical manipulators and wily agitators? This will require thought, policy, and consultation. As you might expect, I have some ideas…
Pete Grieve, “Disciplining Disruption: Inside the High-Stakes Faculty Debate.” Chicago Maroon, April 13, 2017.
Pete Grieve, “Faculty Senate Creates New Disciplinary System.” Chicago Maroon, May 23, 2017.
Frederick Schauer, “The Wily Agitator and the American Free Speech Tradition.” Stanford Law Review 57 (2005): 2157-2170.
Stephanie Saul, “The Conservative Force Behind Speeches Roiling College Campuses.” New York Times, May 20, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/us/college-conservative-speeches.html