Monday, December 02, 2002

Dan Simonthinks that Eugene Volokh, InstaPundit, and I are missing something important in our various commentaries regarding free speech on campus. I think he's mistaken.

"In fact, too much free expression has sometimes threatened the academic health of universities as seriously as too little of it. Thuggish behavior on campus--shouting down of speakers, destruction of leaflets or newspapers, even physically threatening behavior--often masquerades as "protest", with its perpetrators demanding absolute protection from punishment in the name of "free speech"."

In case I've ever been remotely unclear on this: I do not consider the suppression of the speech of others to be protected expression. But I'm pretty sure that I haven't been unclear on this, and neither have Eugene or Glenn. This is a red herring.

' "[T]he regulation of merely offensive speech in classroom settings is an utterly noxious idea," writes Levy,
and the rest resoundingly agree. I admit to being a trifle confused; my understanding was that the whole point
of universities is that a student whose speech--in classroom presentations, on exam papers, in course
assignments--is not even offensive but merely insufficiently scholarly can face penalties as severe as
expulsion. Have things changed that much since I went to school?'

Here Simon supposes that speech that "offensive" is further in the same direction as "insufficiently scholarly." It's not. I wrote "merely offensive" quite advisedly. In-class speech that fails to advance an argument or to contribute to the academic enterprise is, of course, discouraged. But whether speech is "offensive" or not is a question nearly orthogonal to the question of whether it is sufficiently scholarly.

Throughout his post Simon endorses what, in another context, would be referred to as "time, place, and manner" restrictions-- no shouting outside dorms late at night, no shouting down speakers, and so on. Such restrictions are very different from content-based restrictions, which are necessary for the regulation of merely offensive speech. In my own classes I certainly try not to give offense gratuitously. But it is difficult to fully unpack Hobbes' thought without saying some things that might well be offensive to Catholics, or ot any Christians. It's difficult to explore the tension between respecting religious pluralism and protecting the rights of women without saying something potentially offensive to Muslims or Orthodox Jews or Mormons. It's impossible to conduct an academic discussion of multiculturalism and ethnic politics if everyone is worried about triggering "hate speech" codes. Civility is of course a virtue, and it's one that I think most people try to uphold in scholarly settings. But the content of what is said might well be offensive. It could harldy be otherwise, since many people much of the time are offended when their received ideas are challenged.

To single out a student for abuse, to throw racial epithets at a particular person, to threaten with violence-- these are over the line. They're violations of professional ethics and may well warrant university intervention. But mere offensiveness isn't sufficient; and to regulate speech for being merely offensive is deeply dangerous to intellectual pursuits. Simon supposes that Eugene, Glenn, and I might be worried about the abuse of an offensive-speech policy by those with a particular agenda. Speaking for myself, I am; but that worry isn't the primary reason for my opposition to such policies. Content regulation of speech in intellectual settings (by which I mean not only classrooms but also scholarly publications, student newspapers, public lectures and debates, and the whole panoply of ways in which ideas are expressed at a university) is necessarily at odds with the mission of a university.

UPDATE: Dan Simon has posted a reply. More on it later, but please note that I didn't write the University of Chicago policy from which he quotes; it long precedes my arrival here.

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