An article in The Washington Post by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota (UM) specializing in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reports that a faculty committee at his university (Carpenter’s a member) has approved by a 7-2 vote a strong and virtually uncompromising free-speech policy. Now this is just a committee vote, but it’s an important committee, and I expect its recommendations will be approved by UM.
I can’t help but think that the statement is modeled after the University of Chicago’s own policy, adopted in 2014 and also uncompromising. The UM statement makes four points; each is longer than I reproduce but I’ll just list the main points with a few words of my own. First, though, the introduction:
University of Minnesota Board of Regents policy guarantees the freedom “to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional restraint or discipline.” The protection of free speech, like the related protection of academic freedom, is intended “to generate a setting in which free and vigorous inquiry is embraced in the pursuit of ‘the advancement of learning and the search for truth,’ in the words emblazoned on the front of Northrop Auditorium.” Ideas are the lifeblood of a free society and universities are its beating heart. If freedom of speech is undermined on a university campus, it is not safe anywhere. The University of Minnesota resolves that the freedom of speech is, and will always be, safe at this institution.
And the four “core principles”, with my short takes:
(1) A public university must be absolutely committed to protecting free speech, both for constitutional and academic reasons. . . . No member of the University community has the right to prevent or disrupt expression.
That means no disruptions like students interrupting Maryam Namazie’s talk at Goldsmiths University, or idiots pulling the fire alarm during a talk by Ben Shapiro at Cal State Los Angeles, trying to force him to stop speaking. Let’s hope UM actually does something to prevent these disruptions, which really are a form of censorship.
(2) Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful. The University cherishes the many forms of its diversity, including diversity of opinion, which is one of its greatest strengths. At the same time, diversity of opinion means that students and others may hear ideas they strongly disagree with and find deeply offensive. Indeed, students at a well-functioning university should expect to encounter ideas that unsettle them. . .
Note that some protected speech can be deemed offensive and hateful, but is still protected anyway. This entire paragraph (see the document) is the best part of the policy, though it conflicts a bit with what comes later (see point 4). I was especially struck by the following bit, which really tells the Snowflakes to “get over it” and, if they want, battle speech that offends them with counter-speech:
The shock, hurt, and anger experienced by the targets of malevolent speech may undermine the maintenance of a campus climate that welcomes all and fosters equity and diversity. But at a public university, no word is so blasphemous or offensive it cannot be uttered; no belief is so sacred or widely held it cannot be criticized; no idea is so intolerant it cannot be tolerated. So long as the speech is constitutionally protected, and neither harasses nor threatens another person, it cannot be prohibited.
(3) Free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.
This disposes handily of the widespread but misguided trope that it’s okay to “punch up” but not to “punch down.” It’s long struck me as irrational that bad ideas are immune from criticism if uttered by a class deemed “marginalized.” The idea, for instance, that people of color can’t be racist is palpably ridiculous. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should ignore their own complaints about racism.)
The last point prioritizes speech over internecine harmony, an important point:
(4) Even when protecting free speech conflicts with other important University values, free speech must be paramount. As the classic Woodward Report on free speech at academic institutions concluded in 1974:
“Without sacrificing its central purpose, [a university] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values; other institutions may properly assign them the highest, and not merely a subordinate priority; and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”
This is a strong stand for the University to take—if it adopts the speech code. It is aimed at students like the one who yelled at Nicholas Kristakis at Yale, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!”. Remember this video?
There’s one fly in the UM code, though. It’s this statement, also from point 4:
The University does not condone speech that is uncivil or hateful, and University officials should make this clear.
I’m not sure what that means, as it’s in direct conflict with statement 2, which notes that “Free speech includes protection for speech that some find offensive, uncivil, or even hateful.” Does this mean that the University won’t penalize it, but won’t condone it, either? That’s a contradiction, for “condone” means “tolerate” or “accept and allow.” After all, what some individuals find hateful or uncivil, like the case below, is seen as reasoned criticism (or meaningful satire) by others. The University should simply deep-six the sentence above, which seems like a kind of sop to the “I’m-offended” crowd.
The Post article notes that the new policy is a reaction to earlier free-speech unrest at UM:
The move comes after several recent campus controversies over free speech–including two incidents where protestors attempted to shout down guest speakers (see here and here) and the investigation and recommended public censure of faculty members by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (OEOAA) for using an image of Mohammed from the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Ironically, the image was used to promote a panel discussion on free speech and censorship after the terrorist massacre of the magazine’s writers and editors.
If you read the third link, you’ll go to the article about the Charlie Hebdo cover, which was used on a poster for an advertised campus forum on free speech. After that was put up, eight people filed complaints to the OEOAA and 300 people (including 260 Muslim students) signed a petition calling the poster “very offensive”, adding “Knowing that these caricatures hurt and are condemned by 1.75 billion Muslims in the world, the University should not have re-circulated/re-produced them.” The petition called for UM to stop this “Islamophobia”. Finally, the director of the OEOAA, Kimberley Hewitt, backed the petition, saying, “There are limits on free speech, and that would be where you have harassment of an individual based on their identity.” She added, “We got complaints from eight individuals and a petition from 300 people saying that they felt that this was insulting, disparaging to their faith.”
The OEOAA’s investigation of the matter concluded that the flyer did not violate University policy, but the office kvetched anyway:
But it also found that, because many people found the poster “personally offensive and hurtful,” it had contributed to an “atmosphere of disrespect towards Muslims at the University.” In a letter to Coleman, Hewitt recommended that he “communicate that [the College of Liberal Arts] does not support the flier’s image of the Charlie Hebdo depiction of Muhammad.”
The University first caved, demanding that the posters be removed, but then reversed its position. This is what surely launched the committee’s work, which concluded (point 4 above) that free speech trumps an atmosphere of civility and “mutual respect.”
But let’s look at the image that offended so many Muslims at UM. You’ll remember this Charlie Hebdo cover (“All is forgiven” with the Muslim, probably Mohammed, holding a card saying “I am Charlie”—the motto of so many who stood in solidarity with the murdered):
While I suppose this cartoon can support diverse interpretations, the most obvious is that the Prophet is shedding tears over the violence committed in his name, and is also standing in solidarity with the victims. Now is that “offensive and hurtful”? Perhaps to those who see any depiction of the Prophet as offensive, but surely not to those who maintain vociferously that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Once again, the kneejerk reaction to a cartoon, without any understanding of what it meant, continues to breed unrest.