What Free Academic Inquiry Does Not Require

by Neil H. Buchanan

I hereby offer some free career advice for anyone who wants to be published in The New York Times (and many other mainstream liberal publications): Write something critical about American college campuses, using phrases like "the stifling of free thought" and "the narrowing of young people's minds."  It works like a charm.

You can do this as an aggrieved conservative student.  If you do it as the head of a self-styled (and lavishly funded ) "free speech watchdog," The Times might even publish a fawning puff piece about your brave efforts.  And be assured that even though those who disagree with you will also be given some space on the op-ed site, there are self-identified liberals who are eager to allow you to air your pet peeves about American universities.

As I pointed out in a column last week, universities are one of the favorite targets of the American right.  I also mentioned labor unions and the press, and I could also have mentioned Hollywood.  Basically, any institution in which people have the independence and power to speak up against the Republicans' regressive agenda is a target of furious attack.  Now that Donald Trump has unleashed the basest id of his followers, his adopted political party is only too happy to use his rise to continue to attack campus culture.

It is somewhat disheartening that one of those institutions that is currently under attack (the press) is so enthusiastically participating in the attack on another (the academy).  In general, of course, criticism can be a good thing.  Academics write critiques of the press all the time.  (I certainly do.)  It is more than fair and appropriate that the press should cover academia when it is newsworthy.

But uncritical acceptance in the press (on both the news and editorial sides) of the "closed minds on campus" narrative has truly gotten out of hand.  For example, the editorial board of The Times responded to a recent controversy at Middlebury College (about which I will say more below) by decrying the "smothering" of speech at that college and intoning that "[f]ree speech is a sacred right, and it needs protecting, now more than ever."

It is long past time to clarify some of the issues involved in campus speech controversies.  Far from being examples of a dark trend to snuff out unpleasant ideas, campus debate is alive and well.  Moreover, the people who claim to defend the goodness and light of "free intellectual inquiry" seriously misunderstand what that term means.

We can set aside two simple errors before moving to the slightly more complicated ones.  First, invoking the First Amendment is, at best, a metaphor (and a reach).  Although there are some first amendment implications around campus speech (in particular at publicly-funded universities), the Constitution prohibits government censorship.  If one group of people does not want to listen to another group of people, that might or might not be a good decision, but it is generally not a violation of the Bill of Rights.

Second, and as a related matter, being told that you are a jerk (or worse) for the views that you express is not a violation of your right to free expression.  You can say, "Global warming is not real, because I have a snowball here in my hand."  I can call you an idiot.  We are both within our rights.

As I noted in last week's column, this is a point that is especially difficult for college-aged conservatives to accept.  "I expressed my opinion that women should not have the right to control their reproductive destinies, and now people stare at me and I can't get a date for the Spring Formal.  Life is so unfair.  Why are my rights to free speech being trampled by these intolerant liberals?"

As I said, those are the simple cases -- but, sadly, they are also repeated ad nauseam.  The next level of contrived controversy concerns commencement speakers.  One of the best (by which I mean the worst) examples of this genre of academia-bashing came from Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan in 2014.  (Like the editorial board itself, the liberals on the op-ed page seem to truly enjoy scolding academia.  Nicholas Kristof's attacks are especially misguided.)

Egan was responding to right-wing hype about some universities that had rescinded invitations to commencement speakers in the wake of student protests.  Egan called these protesters "commencement bigots," referring to them as censors and (of course) decrying the ultimate bogeyman, political correctness.

What, exactly, is the complaint?  Essentially, people like Egan argue that if universities were really and truly committed to free inquiry, then they would have taught all of their students to welcome the opportunity to listen to a person with whom they disagree.  When?  All the time.  Where?  Anywhere on campus.  Why?  Because everything that happens on a college campus is about intellectual challenge, and anyone who says otherwise is a narrow-minded fool who does not understand what universities are all about.

Anyone who thinks that I am exaggerating should read Egan's column all the way through.  If anything, I am understating his ferocity.  (That he refers to these protesters as "bigots" should provide a sense of his rhetorical inclinations.)  But even without the vitriol, the basic formula is: college is about engaging with ideas, these people decided not to engage with ideas, hence they are failing to live up to the ideals of academia.  Shame!

Although this argument is slightly more plausible than the "I have a right to be both disagreeable and well liked" version of the complaint against academia, it is just as easily exposed as nonsense.  We are talking here about commencement speakers, after all, not Poli Sci reading lists.  Anyone who has been to a graduation ceremony knows that the event is a celebration, not a seminar.

It is true that some universities invite politicians and controversial authors to speak at their commencements.  That is their right.  But it is also their right to choose not to invite such speakers.  When an invitation has been extended and then has to be rescinded, that is awkward, but it is not proof of closed-mindedness any more than not inviting a person in the first place would be.

Why is it not different when someone is invited and then uninvited?  Commencement speaker committees operate without much scrutiny, even though many of them hold meetings that are officially open.  Most students assume that their commencement speaker will be someone uncontroversial, and if someone like Steve Bannon were to be announced as the choice, that would take a lot of people by surprise.  Protests are sure to ensue.

Even if those who object to a choice of speaker are to be blamed for being insufficiently diligent about monitoring the process, however, that is hardly the same thing as being closed minded.  Most colleges have one commencement speaker, and the people whom the committee did not invite are not the victims of the Thought Police.

In short, rescinding a speaking invitation because enough people on campus decide that they would prefer their graduation events to be joyous and fun reflects, at worst, an internal governance snafu.  People are allowed to have opinions about who should speak at commencement.  Failure to invite disagreeable people to speak at such an event is not an indictment of anyone's commitment to fierce intellectual engagement.

What about non-commencement events?  As I noted above, the controversy du jour that is feeding the "intolerant campus liberals" trope comes to us from Middlebury College.  There was apparently some level of violence there, but I will not comment on that issue, both because of the possibility that the violence was not instigated by the protesters and because even a nonviolent protest would have received the same type of scolding from outlets like The Times.

The conservative scholar Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) was invited to speak at Middlebury.  It was an all-campus event, and it involved having the college president introduce Murray as well as having a professor from the Political Science department deliver an on-stage response.  Questions and answers were to follow.

After protesting in advance of the event, some students organized protests at the speech, including standing and turning their backs, chanting, and so on.  (Or, as The Times's editors put it, "caterwauling erupted.")  Eventually, Murray was escorted out of the hall and moved to another venue where he delivered his speech via live streaming.

The tut-tutting response to the supposedly intolerant students was that they missed out on an opportunity to engage with someone with whom they disagree.  Hey, they might have learned something!  Isn't that what college is supposed to be all about?

Certainly, the editorial board at The Times thought so, agreeing with Murray that the evening was "a depressing tale of a missed opportunity for ideas to peaceably collide," adding that "Middlebury students had no chance to challenge him on any of his views. Thought and persuasion, questions and answers, were eclipsed by intimidation."

Sure sounds high-minded, eh?  The problem is that this supposed principle has no boundaries.  The unspoken questions are why Murray was the one whose ideas were suddenly deemed essential to be included in a college education, and why those ideas were given such a prominent stage.

To address the latter question first, it is clear that this particular event, although not a commencement-like celebration, was also not merely some random book-reading at a coffee house.  Murray's talk was bestowed with the prestige of being a widely publicized event, with participation from the top officer of the college and a respected professor.  That level of respect means something, and Murray knows it just as much as the student protesters do.

The other question -- Why is Murray the one with whom Middlebury students must engage in order to prove that they are open-minded? -- all but answers itself.  There is no particular reason why his (intellectually weak and long-since debunked) arguments are exactly the provocation that the students need.  A committee on campus decided that he should speak, and many students felt that this gave him credibility that he does not deserve.

This is, in fact, the very nature of not just academic inquiry but of simply living one's day-to-day life.  There are countless things that we might do that would be good for us.  As I write this, I could be training for a triathlon, learning to speak Mandarin, studying the books of William F. Buckley, Jr., or trying to understand how monetary policy affects the dollar-peso exchange rate.  All of those would be arguably good things for me to do, because I would get something out of each activity (even if I merely learn that triathlons would kill my middle-aged body or that Buckley was an overrated polemicist).

Similarly, when I assemble the syllabus for my Tax Policy course, I have never assigned a book by Charles Murray.  Indeed, I have not read a lot of books that might be relevant to the subjects that I want to cover.  More than that, there are surely books that would convince me that I ought to cover an entirely different set of topics in that course.  But I have never read them.

Some of this is simply a matter of being unaware of the existence of certain books, of course.  (But why am I not trying harder to find them?)  In addition, however, I have to make active choices.  There are books written by people who think that the U.S. income tax violates the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against involuntary servitude.  Why do I not include those books on my syllabus?  Frankly, because they are idiotic, and what my students could learn from the books' stupidity takes time that is better spent on higher-value activities.

I could be wrong in deciding to assign one book or article and not assigning other books or articles.  I might even be doing so for bad reasons.  What I am not doing is shutting down free inquiry by "refusing to engage with disagreeable ideas."  I am making choices in a world of limited time and changing contexts.

Peaceful protests -- even loud, unruly ones that prevent people from being heard -- are not squelching free inquiry.  People like Murray remain free to publish and to speak to groups that wish to listen.  The administration of a small liberal arts college decided that it would feature a man with offensive views, and many students at that college expressed their view that this was a bad idea -- not necessarily because they are not open to unwelcome ideas, but because they rightly disagree with the simplistic notion that every bad idea deserves our time and attention.

The broader point remains that there are far too many people, even on the political left, who appear to be aching to attack universities and their students for having closed minds.  If that is true (and it might be, although I doubt it), then they need better evidence than the fact that people argue about who should be given time and different degrees of attention to speak on campus.