Six years ago, my good friend Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, coined the perfect phrase to describe the state of free speech in American education: “unlearning liberty.” Our educational system is at cross-purposes with the Bill of Rights, teaching students to believe that unalienable rights such as free speech and due process are a problem, especially when they conflict with the demands of social justice or political expediency.
It’s not that students are taught to despise free speech — after all, students love their own right to speak. It’s that students believe free speech should be subordinate to other, higher values. With depressing regularity now, surveys of college students reveal a pattern: There’s immense support for free speech in the abstract, but that support erodes significantly when the questions get specific.
Last October, for example, Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. program released the results of a survey of 800 college students that showed 83 percent believed the First Amendment should be “followed and respected.” A whopping 93 percent said there was value in listening to “views and opinions that I may disagree with.”
Good news, right? Not so fast. It turns out that 58 percent of students said colleges should “forbid” speakers “who have a history of engaging in hate speech,” with hate speech defined as “anything one particular person believes is harmful, racist, or bigoted.” Oh, and almost 40 percent believed it was sometimes acceptable to shout down or disrupt a speaker.
On Sunday, Gallup and the Knight Foundation released the results of a new survey of 3,014 college students. On the one hand, its results were sadly familiar. An overwhelming majority (89 percent) said it was “extremely” or “very” important to protect citizens’ free-speech rights, but a full 64 percent said the First Amendment shouldn’t protect so-called hate speech. A strong majority (60 percent) supported restricting even costumes that “stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups.” Almost half of students supported establishing speech codes, and 61 percent said the “climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”
Hidden elsewhere within the poll was perhaps the key question of the free-speech debate, a question that starkly illustrates exactly how free-speech controversies are framed and how students process the “cost” of the First Amendment:
Opinions differed widely by demographic. Those who belong to groups historically or currently in positions of power — white students, men or Republicans — tended to favor free speech. Nearly 2 in 3 students who were black, women or Democrats favored inclusivity. pic.twitter.com/X6izP9oIGh
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 12, 2018
At first, I objected to the question. We are not “forced to choose” between inclusivity and free speech. But on reflection, I realized the question’s worth. That’s exactly how free-speech debates are framed on campus. Advocates of free speech are often cast as enemies of diversity and opponents of inclusion. Students are told time and again that if they value historically marginalized communities, then they should endeavor to protect them from problematic or offensive speech.
Yet that line of thinking posits a false conflict. No one is more empowered by free speech than the historically marginalized and dispossessed. Writing in 1860, Frederick Douglass rightly declared free speech to be the “great moral renovator of society and government.” He argued that “slavery cannot tolerate free speech” and that “five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.”
The true conflict isn’t between speech and diversity, it’s between speech and the unaccountable power that political and cultural leaders so consistently crave.
The antebellum South did indeed crack down on free speech. In fact, the First Amendment would not explicitly apply to the states until the Supreme Court’s 1925 decision in Gitlow v. New York. Thus, throughout slavery and for much of Jim Crow, black Americans were helpless in the face of state government suppression of free speech, as numerous American states implemented regimes that tyrannized their African-American citizens.
Federal court rulings defeating state efforts to suppress the civil-rights movement were indispensable to the cause of equality. I remember asking the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, an early member of the Congressional Black Caucus, why he believed the movement for African-American equality made such rapid legal gains once it was able to fully mobilize. “Almighty God and the First Amendment,” he responded. The First Amendment gave the most visible marginalized group in American history a voice, and God softened men’s hearts to hear the message that spread as a result.
The true tension in the First Amendment isn’t between freedom and diversity or freedom and inclusion. History teaches us that the tension is between freedom and power. Free speech, by its very nature, leads to questioning, debate, and — eventually — accountability.
In reality, speech is the engine that powers American diversity. Individual liberty is indispensable to true inclusivity. Thus, it’s incompatible with the false diversity of the college campus, which celebrates differences in sexuality and ethnicity but increasingly expects its faculty and students to think alike. And it’s incompatible with the false inclusivity of the modern university, which all too often excludes even the most credible and serious voices if those voices challenge the orthodoxies of identity politics.
Our students “unlearn liberty” in part because they’ve been presented with a false choice. The true conflict isn’t between speech and diversity, it’s between speech and the unaccountable power that political and cultural leaders so consistently crave.