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A Better Way of Understanding the Debate Over Free Speech on Campus

In the nationwide debate over campus free speech, a lot of apparent disagreement derives from failing to separate the objects of study, and the habitat where study takes place.
Harper Library at the University of Chicago.

Harper Library at the University of Chicago.

In 2014, the University of Chicago, where I teach, released what would come to be known as the Chicago Principles, a set of very strong positions on free expression that stirred national attention and were quickly adopted by many institutions. The principles also sparked a whirlwind of free-speech debates right here on campus, and my research into the history of censorship drew me to the center of them. After many long nights of watching brilliant, passionate students, faculty, and administrators who seemed like they were talking past each other, I realized something that I now see everywhere in the nationwide debate over campus free speech. A lot of apparent disagreement derives from treating as a single issue two issues that it's better to consider separately: the objects of study in one case, and the habitat where study takes place in the other.

Protecting objects of study means ensuring that we continue to ask uncomfortable questions alongside the comfortable ones, that scholars remain free to pursue truths unwelcome to power, that I and my historian colleagues can offer courses on hate groups and genocides as well as on artists and inventors, and that I can ask my students to read potentially upsetting texts like The Merchant of Venice. In contrast, protecting the learning environment involves policies that affect the daily lived experience of people moving through a campus, focusing primarily on such things as posters, artworks, or facilities.

Numerous conversations with students have shown me that they tend to consider these two issues separately, a separation that explains why student responses to the Chicago Principles, and to free speech debates more broadly, might seem mixed and inconsistent.

In contrast with common student attitudes, the report that sparked the Chicago Principles makes no distinction between objects of study and habitat, nor does most of the prominent discourse around those principles. The report states that students "should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself," which could apply as much to club meetings as to class meetings. Discussions of "freedom of inquiry," and of guaranteeing "all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn" address an abstract idea of a community of discourse that does not compartmentalize classroom life and dorm life, as many students do. A statement issued by the State University System of Florida embracing the Chicago Principles similarly proposes "to support and encourage full and open discourse and the robust exchange of ideas and perspectives," while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which launched a campaign to support and disseminate the Chicago Principles, affirms that "the core purpose of a university [is to be] a place for free inquiry, debate, and discourse," and that "students should ideally be given the opportunity to participate in any discussion of university values."

By treating free inquiry in such abstract and unspecific terms, the Chicago Principles, and many proponents of these principles, do not engage the debate the way students tend to see it, which has made it hard for students even to envision what the Chicago Principles aim to accomplish. Students immediately ask how these guidelines are intended to apply to specific classroom activities, assignments, club activities, private conversations, reading lists, library selections, and so on, but the only concrete example cited in the report dates from 1932, when protesters objected to communist political candidate William Z. Foster speaking on campus.

This example makes clear that the report stands against the practice of de-platforming speakers with unpopular viewpoints—an issue that came to a head on our campus in 2018, when Professor Luigi Zingales invited former President Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon to speak at our Booth School of Business, sparking protests and counterprotests over an event that has still been neither scheduled nor officially canceled. But the statement's declaration that the university still "may restrict expression ... directly incompatible with the functioning of the University" does not make it at all clear how such restrictions would or would not apply to the specific instances my students think about daily.

Students at the University of Chicago participate in a walk-out and rally to protest Steve Bannon in Chicago, Illinois, on November 15th, 2016.

Students at the University of Chicago participate in a walk-out and rally to protest Steve Bannon in Chicago, Illinois, on November 15th, 2016.

The arguments about free expression that I hear from students on campus are usually about what I call "habitat": College campuses aim to offer an ideal habitat for inquiry, with beautiful architecture, housing, food, and every amenity designed to help the mind be at its best. But a comfortable habitat means different things for different people, especially for students from marginalized groups who—thanks to recent efforts—are attending college in record numbers. Students ask for the removal of posters, statues, murals, exhibits, or symbols from hallways, but rarely ask that texts be removed from reading lists.

As a disabled faculty member, I share with many of my students the common experience of coming to a building only to discover impassable stairs, and arrows telling us we have to trek around the block to reach a ramp. This does more than add a painful journey to the day. It also projects a message: The Makers of This Place Did Not Think You Should Be Here. Stairs are not speech, but for a student of color, an insensitive mural or a poster in the hall advertising a white nationalist speaker delivers that same message: People on This Campus Think You Should Not Be Here—a message that transmits a jolt of pain.

What crystalized for me the difference students see between campus habitat and objects of study was reading about an experiment; not merely the findings, but also the structure of a study whose approach to contrasting object with environment helped me see that my students and the authors of the Chicago report are not considering opposite goals so much as separate goals.

The study, conducted by primate behavior specialists Emily Bethell and Nicola Koyama of Liverpool John Moores University, aimed to examine optimism. Hamsters were given many bowls of water, some containing sweet-tasting sugar water, some bitter-tasting quinine water, but the only way to tell the difference was to drink. The hamsters were kept in two kinds of habitats, one filled with toys and comfy hiding places, the other harsh and bare.

The researchers discovered that the hamsters in the comfortable habitats remained willing to keep tasting the water after many experiences of sour and sweet, but those in the harsh habitat quickly gave up and refused to try again after a few bad experiences. The study concluded that living in a harsher daily environment makes it harder to face experiences we know could be painful, like reading an upsetting text, or researching an upsetting topic.

People from marginalized groups face jolts of pain every day, whether from news, fiction, social media, or in-person microaggressions. It makes each day's grind that much harder, and the cumulative fatigue makes it more difficult to come home at day's end and face reading a painful text. Students who request speech codes and safe spaces aim to minimize such daily doses of unconstructive discomfort, not because they want to create a college path where one never meets a challenging idea, but rather to help marginalized students retain the strength to reach that classroom and face the difficult ideas inside. In fact, many of the same students who ask for safe spaces themselves choose to study the very objects they find painful, and it is in order to be strong enough to study that content that they ask for a less harsh environment.

As for the objects of study, here virtually all students agree these should be protected. Students do occasionally object to particular books, and such cases are easily sensationalized and almost always make a national splash, but these flashy stories are rare exceptions. In 2018, the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom found that only 3 percent of all book challenges were initiated by students, and 6 percent came from political or religious groups, with only 3 percent occurring in academic institutions. The majority of book or curriculum challenges originate from parents or adult patrons in public libraries or K-12 institutions. Meanwhile, for every student challenge to a book's inclusion on a syllabus, many dozens of students are more interested in making environment-focused requests.

Progressive curricular reform, and protests against it, are another frequent subject of articles and op-eds, but while curriculum battles do happen, their clickbait potential can make them seem to represent a larger portion of current tensions than they actually do. Day to day, on our campus and many other campuses (though there are exceptions), progressive curriculum changes are no longer controversial. Student debates and criticisms are mainly about best practices for advancing diversity, and core courses on African Civilization and "Gender Civilization" thrive alongside the old European Civilization courses.

The habitat or the water—these problems are entangled with each other, but thinking about them separately is helpful, both for creating better policies, and for understanding why students who all support absolute freedom of inquiry have had such divided reactions to the Chicago Principles themselves.

The students who keep me up past midnight debating speech codes over dorm kitchen mac and cheese don't want to be coddled, as has been claimed; they want to grapple with painful questions. If anything, they want that more than students did a few years ago, since undergraduates today are more politically active than they have been in years, especially women and students of color. But as student bodies grow more diverse, students are speaking up about the aspects of their habitat that are hurting them. The need for a feeling of safety is as real as the need for a ramp if we want students to reach day's end with the strength to read that painful book, to ask that painful question.

Content and environment do overlap. When students feel afraid to voice unpopular political positions in class, or when student projects spark controversy in a hallway, the abstract community of inquiry extolled in the Chicago Principles is indeed threatened. But the tendency of free-speech advocates to discuss only the abstract community of inquiry as a whole, and not its many individual subcomponents (such as classroom activities, club activities, private conversations, reading lists, and library selection), means that, all too often, protecting the whole conversation becomes a justification for abandoning efforts to make campuses safer for those students who are the most vulnerable and least powerful.

Our dependence on automobiles did not stop us from looking critically at their subcomponents and developing safety systems to reduce traffic fatalities; nor did the need to maintain high academic standards stop us from examining the reasons neuroatypical students struggle with standard testing, and developing accommodations that have let many brilliant people enter our scholarly communities who would once have been excluded. In the same way, the atmosphere of free inquiry can be broken down and examined as a set of subcomponents, whose impacts and needs can be considered separately. This more detailed view will let us find ways to protect free inquiry while making campuses safer for all students far more easily than if we focused on addressing an imprecise and abstract whole.

I have talked with free-speech activists who do recognize how much student requests have started to center on habitat over curriculum, but such advocates often seem to fail to recognize the depth or complexity of the problem. If a Jewish, gay, or African-American student feels a jolt of pain walking past a neo-Nazi poster, the solution, I have been told, is not to remove the poster but to change the student, to give that student more self-confidence and internal emotional armor so the poster will no longer cause pain. Much as I think we should improve our student mental-health, counseling, and support services, the best student services in the world will not make a swastika or other genocidal symbol no longer cause pain to its targets—not in this generation.

Yes, we should aspire to reach a generation so free of hate and fear that such symbols lose their bitterness, but to attain that future, we need this generation of marginalized students to reach graduation and attain the empowerment that brings—and before that happens, they need to get down the hallway and into my classroom. If a student can't reach my classroom without a safe-space option, or another change to the campus environment, we have to take that need as seriously as the need for a ramp, and do our best to meet such environmental needs while being careful to protect the objects of study as well. Universities cannot do their best for the world without intellectual freedom, but they can't do so without access either, and if the Chicago committee report says the university "may restrict expression ... directly incompatible with the functioning of the University," when a student genuinely has a breakdown in a hallway attempting to walk past a poster, that poster is manifestly incompatible with an important aspect of university function.

University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray, quoted in the Chicago report, argues that "education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom."

Gray is correct, and the students who keep me up late debating agree with her statement wholeheartedly. But the conditions needed to cultivate hard thought and judgment are not the same for all students, especially as student bodies change demographically.

The habitat and the objects of study—drafting policies that will protect both may be difficult, and will take time, but it becomes easier when we realize the two goals need not be opposed. Both aim at one thing: to help this generation ask even better, harder questions than the last.


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