Defending Speech and Speakers on Campus

I was recently elected to the Chair of the Academic Council at Duke (the Faculty Senate), and so have been doing a bit of thinking about issues related to how college campuses deal with issues of free speech, association, inquiry and the like. This statement is the best thing that I have read  in the way of general guiding principles (Truth Seeking, Democracy, Freedom of Thought, and Expression). These two paragraphs are especially critical:

None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.

Three things stand out as key to me here. First, humility. Second, there are facts and things that are true and false. Third, it takes (at least) two sides to have a real conversation. I like this statement as guidance to navigating the many issues related to speech, academic freedom and inquiry on college campuses.

A few more thoughts that deserve later amplification.

This is a great piece by Mike Munger that notes the role of academic freedom that flows from the 1st Amendment protection of freedom of association as the true distinctive of Universities (and not speech, which is a universal freedom of our nation). However, bad, harmful speech often has an asymmetric chilling effect on individuals from groups that have historically been excluded from full membership in the robust discussions envisioned by the statement linked above. And freedom of association is a key way that people can decide which issues to discuss and debate, as well as how and when. So, while the entire University could never rightly be a “safe space” so would it be wrong to say there can be no such “safe spaces” on campus, of a variety of ilks. This may seem to be a paradox.

Similarly, for some members of University communities the term “safe space” is viewed only as a term that applies to intellectual discussion, while for others they have in mind their physical safety. People who are physically afraid have no hope of engaging in intellectual inquiry. Living up the best that a University can be will require continued struggle on many fronts.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: