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While the right to free speech is considered fundamental in classical liberalism, contemporary liberals have been accused of being an enemy of this right. Some recent examples include incidents at Berkeley and Middlebury. As always, the matter of free speech is philosophically interesting, especially when it involves higher education.
One important distinction in regards to rights is that of the negative versus the positive. A negative right is not an evil right; rather it is a freedom such that the possessor is not entitled to be provided with the means to exercise the right. It is, roughly put, a right to not be interfered with. A positive right, in contrast, is an entitlement to the means needed to exercise the right. For example, the United States currently grants citizens a right to public K-12 education—in addition to having the liberty to seek this education, it is also provided to students. In contrast, college education is currently a negative right: students have the liberty to attend college, but are (generally) not provided with free education.
The right to free speech is generally taken to be a negative right; it is intended as a protection from impediment rather than an entitlement to the means to communicate. To use an obvious example, while I have the right to express my views no one is obligated to provide me with free radio or TV time in which to do so.
While university personnel have no right to unjustly interfere with free speech, they are also under no obligation to provide people with speaking opportunities on campus. Decisions about who to invite and who to allow to speak in official venues are often made on pragmatic grounds, such as which speakers will boost the reputation of the school or who happens to be friends with top administrators. There are also practical concerns about the cost of the speaker, the likelihood of trouble arising, and the extent of the interest in the speaker. While these practical concerns are important, decisions about who to invite (and who to exclude) should certainly be made on principled grounds.
One reasonable principle is that decisions should be made based on the educational value of having the speaker on campus. Since universities are supposed to educate students, it makes excellent sense for them to operate on this principle. Speakers who would offer little or nothing in the way of educational value could thus be justly denied invitations. Of course, education is not the only concern of a university in terms of what it offers to the students and the community. Speakers/presenters that offer things of artistic value or even mere entertainment value should also be given due consideration.
One obvious concern about deciding based on such factors is that there can be considerable debate about which speakers have adequate merit to warrant their invitation to campus. For example, the incident at Middlebury arose because some regard Charles Murray’s co-authored controversial book The Bell Curve as being based on pseudoscience and bad methodology. While these matters can be clouded with ideology, there are already clearly established standards regarding educational merit in regards to such things as methodology and legitimacy. The main problem lies in their application—but this is not a problem unique to picking speakers. It extends across the entire academy. Fortunately, the basic principle of educational merit is reasonable clear—but the real fights take place over the particulars.
Another seemingly sensible principle is a moral one—that those invited should reflect the values of the institution and perhaps the broader society. At the very least, those invited should not be evil and should not be espousing evil.
This principle does have some obvious problems. One is the challenge of deciding what conflicts with the values of the institution. Another is the problem that it is problematic to speak of the values of the broader society, given the considerable diversity of opinions on moral issues. When people use this approach, they are often simply referring to their own values and assuming that they are shared by society as a while. There is the enduring problem in ethics of sorting out what exactly is evil. And then there is the classic concern about whether academic or artistic merit can offset moral concerns. For example, a Catholic university might regard a pro-choice philosopher as endorsing a morally wrong position, yet also hold that having this philosopher engage a pro-life advocate in a campus debate to have educational merit. As another example, a liberal institution might regard an extreme libertarian as having morally problematic views, yet see educational merit in having them present their arguments as part of a series on American political philosophy. As with the matter of merit, there are rational and principled ways to approach ethical concerns—but this area is far more fraught with controversy than questions of assessing educational merit.
While I do agree that speech can cause harm, I hold to a presumption in favor of free expression. As a principle, this means that if there is reasonable doubt as to whether to merit of a speech outweighs moral concerns about the speaker or content, then the decision should favor free expression. This is based on the view that it is better to run the risk of tolerating possible evil than to risk silencing someone who has something worth saying. As such, I generally favor a liberal (in the classic sense) approach to inviting speakers to universities.
In the next essay I will consider the matter of the “heckler’s veto”, which occurs when the crowd silences a speaker.
I agree that Mike has always been in favor of free speech. This is what give me hope that he will come around regarding school choice. Why not give poor people some options?
Michael LaBossiere says
If it were shown that putting the money into charter schools would be better for poor people than investing that money into public education, then I’d be fine with charter schools.
One concern I have is the money: students in poor districts generally have much less money spent on them for education, so would their choice involve getting that small amount of money or would every kid get the full tuition to the very best and most expensive schools? Or the average tuition or something else? Or would charter schools all be “free” like public schools? If a poor kid does not get enough from the state, then they will be stuck going to the cheap school. Rich families will be able to afford the better schools, since they have the resources to add to the public money.
Please read this and the explain how spending more will make a difference:
Michael LaBossiere says
This is similar to claims about health care. It is true that the US has the best health care in the world…for those who can afford it. Likewise, it is true the US spends heavily on education, but the spending is uneven:
I will agree that just throwing money at the problem is not the solution (it never is for any problem) and that there is considerable waste and misuse of money in academics. But, the low funding for poor schools is certainly a factor that needs to be addressed. I don’t see how charter schools would fix this economic inequality. Unless the plan is to have equally funded charter schools readily and equally accessible to all.
Do ya feel me, TJ?
Good background on this. One important point is that we decide as a democracy what we tolerate as free speech. For example, we have democratically determined laws that prevent people from standing outside your home screaming obscenities at you even though we have a right (negative right) to free speech. So, the point is all rights, negative or positive, come with responsibility as determined by the democracy (people).
So, applying this to universities would mean a democratic decision on who or who not to invite.
Michael LaBossiere says
A good point; but what if we repeat Germany and decide that Nazism is fine?
These rights are never decided democratically in say a university or business setting. It will be one person or at most a few people who will decide who gets free speech and who doesn’t.
Sorry, did not mean to be anonymous. M. Peters