What Should Free Speech Mean in College?

Illustration: Aad Goudappel

Imagine a student posting satirical flyers around his dorm that mock undocumented students who fear deportation. Or flyers that say, “Racism lives here.” Or posters advertising a controversial speaker’s visit—which another resident rips down.

Now picture a classroom discussion about police shootings of African Americans. Some students attribute the deaths to cops’ racist attitudes. Another student counters that claim, saying a more likely explanation is that violent crime rates are higher among blacks. “Now, that was particularly uncivil!” the professor replies. Another student stands, as if to storm out in disgust at his classmate’s rebuttal. The professor slams his hand on the table, crying, “Sit down!” as he tries to regain control of the room.

Out in White Plaza—a Stanford free speech zone—a student group staffs a table in support of a Supreme Court nominee. Detractors try to steal the group’s signs, prompting the supporters to film the sign stealers and the taunting that ensues on both sides.

There are no easy answers to how a university should address conflicts in which students feel attacked or silenced—sometimes on both sides simultaneously. As Debra Satz, a philosopher and the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, says, “A central aim of the university—to generate knowledge—depends on the free exchange of ideas.” But, says Satz, who expands on her view in an essay below, “The classroom is not a street corner: No classroom can be a place of learning without abiding by norms of civility and mutual respect.”

For several years now, we’ve debated as a nation whether free speech on college campuses is under duress—and if so, how so and what to do about it. Here, you’ll read four senior faculty members’ views on the matter, and on how Stanford might cultivate open dialogue while paying heed to another university value that molds our educational experiences: inclusion. We hope you’ll consider their views and then share your own.

Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, is the senior editor of Stanford.

Photo of Richard Banks.Ralph Richard Banks (Photo: Natalie Glatzel)

When Silence Isn’t Golden

by Ralph Richard Banks

“Words are dangerous. That’s why we should always choose them with care.” 

That’s my way of preparing my law students for the discussion of controversial and polarizing topics—abortion, same-sex marriage, capital punishment, affirmative action. I worry that the inclination to censor oneself or others may deprive us all of the full and rich inquiry such topics warrant. I know, too, that students may feel invested in these topics, implicated by them, in a way they don’t when we discuss, say, invalidation of wage and hour laws during the New Deal. It’s all too easy for the class to reach an unproductive equilibrium, where some students don’t speak to avoid the risk of censure and others confidently declare some views righteous and others bigoted.

Students are unlikely to make useful intellectual contributions if they are feeling attacked or if they feel that they don’t belong at Stanford.

Gay and lesbian students may feel, understandably, that criticisms of same-sex marriage imply rejection of them. Other students may be hesitant to voice religious opposition to same-sex marriage, fearing moral condemnation by their classmates. Similar issues arise with race-based affirmative action, where students from underrepresented racial minority groups might feel as though their status as a Stanford student is being questioned. Classmates, in turn, might either imply that they don’t belong or decline to voice important questions about the wisdom and effects of race-based affirmative action.

In short and plain language, we need to cut other people some slack.

In both cases, I try to frame the discussion broadly and to make it about policies rather than people. I situate race-based affirmative action, for example, in the context of the many ways that universities deviate from strict admissions criteria of grades and test scores. I place same-sex marriage within a broader conversation about the changing role and nature of marriage. With both topics, I try to create space for conversation by encouraging students to identify unbigoted reasons that people may oppose race-based affirmative action or the Supreme Court’s mandate of same-sex marriage. 

While the challenges of conversation around such sensitive issues are longstanding, my sense is that they have become more daunting in recent years. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain an environment in which all students feel free to share their views and to join together in working through morally fraught and politically divisive issues.

I see two factors as undermining debate on college campuses. One is the rise of social media, or, more accurately, the dominance of social media as a means through which young people relate to others and learn about their society. Now, what happens inside the classroom is shaped by what could happen outside of the classroom. In class, comments can be made available to the world nearly instantaneously. Social media mobs can seem merciless and relentless. The second factor relates to students’ willingness to pounce on others who voice sentiments they deem unacceptable. Some portion of this inclination stems from anxiety and insecurity; students in their search for comfort seek certainty—an ideological safe space. This confluence of forces can lead to an uncomfortable classroom dynamic, in which the most thoughtful students become the least likely to speak out, leaving a conversation dominated by those with the most extreme and self-righteous views. 

This situation is worsened by the fact that the nearest role models—the faculty—are often not very much better at engaging around polarizing issues. Just as students do not want to be called to account by their classmates, neither do faculty want to be targeted by students for having said something allegedly racist, sexist, classist, etc. All too often, faculty, rationally, pull back from discussing contentious issues for fear of censure. And faculty are aware that if issues do arise, the institution is more likely to protect its own interest, which is in avoiding controversy, protest and bad publicity, than to take a principled stance in support of a faculty member. No wonder that students fall short of our aspirations for full and vigorous debate; faculty often do as well.

I have my own way of pushing back against the forces that squelch debate. I emphasize that even polarizing, politically divisive issues are, in fact, complicated; they highlight difficult questions of law and policy, areas where the answers are not obvious. We would do well, then, to resist the urge toward self-righteousness and instead embrace a sense of humility, with full awareness of the limits of our own understanding. Curiosity will lead to more insight than certainty. 

Confronted with challenging topics, we need to cultivate patience, both with ourselves and with others. We should be less likely to take offense, less likely to impute ill. We need to charitably interpret others’ perspectives and hold in our minds the possibility that they may be criticizing our position, not us; our viewpoint, not our identity. In short and plain language, we need to cut other people some slack. And if we cut them some slack, hopefully they will cut us some slack. That would give everyone more space to join together in trying to figure out this complicated and frightening world in which we live. 

Ralph Richard Banks, ’87, MA ’87, is the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. His scholarship focuses on the law with respect to race, education, employment and family.

Photo of Michael McConnell.Michael McConnell (Photo: Courtesy Stanford Law School)

Academic Value No. 1

by Michael McConnell

Freedom of speech on campus has become controversial as never before. A recent national survey of 2,225 college students found that 57 percent think university administrators should be able to restrict political views that are seen as hurtful or offensive to others. Even at Stanford, students frequently appeal to the university to silence other students whose views make them feel uncomfortable. This makes serious discussion of many important political issues almost impossible. Students of a conservative persuasion tell me that they do not feel free to express their views—even mainstream, reasonable views shared by millions of Americans—in class or in common spaces, for fear of attracting a torrent of abuse from fellow students and occasional disapproval from a small minority of ideologically intolerant faculty. They simply self-censor; they keep their mouths shut.

In disciplines like law, political science, history, the humanities and even medicine, the silencing of political dissent has devastating consequences. The purpose of the university is to search for the truth through the relentless exercise of reason and evidence; that purpose cannot be achieved if dissenting views are suppressed or potentially controversial avenues of inquiry are avoided. At a personal level, it is, of course, bad for the political minority, who feel excluded and unwelcome. But the greatest victims are members of the political majority, the left-progressive students who are deprived of the opportunity to test their arguments against contrary ideas, to learn how to engage with (and perhaps to persuade) people from the other side, and even, on occasion, to discover that they were wrong or misguided. Universities should not be bubbles. A university education should prepare students to encounter the world, in all its diversity and contentiousness, where not everyone will agree and not everyone will be willing to follow left-progressive notions about what can and cannot be said.

Universities should not be bubbles.

Moderate students who share some but not all the views of either side may be the most endangered. In these highly polarized times, students of a conservative, libertarian or religious-traditionalist bent can find friends and allies—at least outside of the classroom or the more public arenas for discussion. But moderates are without a home. They are excoriated if they deviate from the left-progressive orthodoxy but may not wish to make common cause with the right side of the spectrum. My sense is that moderate voices are disappearing from the campus debate. 

Stanford as a university should actively encourage diversity of opinion in a way that would be beyond the proper role of government. We should not be content with protecting the freedom of speech. We should regard a healthy pluralism of opinion as a pedagogical necessity.

What, then, should we do? I have three suggestions.

First, we should undertake a survey of the campus environment to determine just how constrained the expression of dissenting opinions really is. Do students who differ from the majority feel silenced? Do students at Stanford interact with people of differing views? Are serious cross-ideological conversations taking place? Is the classroom a place of free inquiry and discussion, rather than of ideological indoctrination or conformity? These must be questions, not assumptions. As a scientific, empirically minded institution, when Stanford is serious about campus problems, whether they are sexual assaults or the high cost of housing, the first step is to survey students and faculty to find out how serious the problem actually is.

Second, we need to elevate the topic of free exchange of ideas within the Stanford community. For much of our history, educators could assume that free speech and the toleration of difference of opinion were values shared by all Americans. This can no longer be assumed. Perhaps the role of the university in society, and the central place of freedom of expression in fulfilling that role, could be made the focus of a portion of New Student Orientation. Princeton chose Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech as the book all incoming students would read and discuss together last fall. We could, and should, do something similar.

Third, we need an office in the university administration that is committed to protecting freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression. Currently, when a student’s poster is taken down by dorm officials or a professor demands ideological conformity, students have no obvious place to go for redress. 

Free speech is not just a legal constraint. It is an academic value. We need to do more to give it life.

Michael McConnell is the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law and director of the Constitutional Law Center, as well as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Photo of Hazel Rose Markus.Hazel Rose Markus (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Listen and Learn

by Hazel Rose Markus

We have two ears and one mouth; it is wise to use them in these proportions. This wisdom, attributed to multiple advice-givers across time and continents, highlights the underappreciated power of listening.

To provide a stable foundation for learning, growth and community at Stanford, our values of free expression and inclusion should be equally strong. Currently, free speech, which privileges the use of the mouth, is far stronger. Inclusion, the idea that everyone belongs and that no one should feel like a guest in someone else’s house, could use buttressing. Cultivating the use of the ears in houses and dorms but also in classes is one way to strengthen inclusion. 

As a psychologist who studies culture, I know that the imbalance in institutional emphasis between free speech and inclusion is hardly unique to Stanford. In the United States, where the individual is understood as a stable, independent entity, free speech has the advantage of historical precedent and widespread philosophical and moral support. Through talking, people express their rights and individuality; they influence their worlds. Americans are constantly exhorted to find and use their voices. Free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and the United States is a nation of many free talkers. The best way to counter any excesses of free speech, we are told by legal experts, is with more speech. 

When a class becomes a community, everyone learns more.

Inclusion is a newer and more complex concern with much less historical and institutional underpinning. Inclusion is hard because it removes the spotlight from the free and independent individual and instead illuminates interdependence, relationships and the consequences of individuals’ actions. Meaningful recognition and inclusion of the many experiences and perspectives that now make up Stanford is a challenge that will require many small tweaks, as well as larger changes in norms, policies and practices. 

Speaking freely in my Cultural Psychology class, I noted that in the United States, talking was valuable because “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Several students with East Asian backgrounds seemed puzzled and offered a different cultural take on talking: “The mouth is the source of misfortune” and “The duck that quacks the loudest gets shot.” For those who hail from worlds in which the individual is not centered and separated but understood as a flexible, committed being defined by relations with close others, speaking requires attention to the consequences of one’s speech. And research confirms that while it’s true for European Americans that talking helps thinking, for many Asians and Asian Americans, talking can actually get in the way of thinking.

In class, some students with European American backgrounds were extremely well practiced in speaking freely and often. As one student told me, “I don’t even know what I think until I hear myself saying it.” Others, however, often those with less wealth and privilege, or those who were first-gen, were decidedly more reticent. A student who grew up in a rural community where he practiced fitting in, keeping his head down and paying attention to authority, asked me, “All those students who talk all the time—how do they do it? How do they already have so many ideas and opinions?”

As I have listened to these students, I have learned that they all have a lot to contribute but that the university as currently arranged makes inclusion more likely for the easy talker than for the others. Designing for inclusion raises many speech-related questions: Are people equally familiar and practiced with speaking and with engaging in active debate in the marketplace of ideas? Do they feel equally entitled and empowered to speak? Is speaking the most important way to have impact in the world? When is my speech hurting, threatening or excluding others? Do I have a responsibility to care about this?

These are tough questions, but they are the kinds of questions that Stanford has the responsibility to answer as it designs itself for an inclusive future. Some can be answered by listening to the rich array of perspectives available at Stanford. A class called Intergroup Communication that I teach with Dereca Blackmon, ’91, assistant vice provost and executive director of inclusion and diversity education, facilitates both talking and listening among people with different backgrounds and experiences. Based on a technique known as the fishbowl, students divide themselves into groups and ask and answer questions about one another. The groups can be based on any social distinction—major, region, birth order, religion, etc. 

Often the class begins with gender. Students divide into men, women and gender nonconforming. Each group develops thoughtful questions for the other groups, which take turns sitting in the middle of the room while the other groups pose their questions. In subsequent weeks, students divide into groups based on race and ethnicity, on the socioeconomic level of their families, and on sexual orientation. The class debriefs together following each unit, and outside of class, students meet for a discussion with a student from a different social category than their own. 

A set of norms guides the discussions, including: What is learned here leaves here, what is heard here stays here, make space, take space, understand your intention and own your impact. The questions are real. How can men be allies to women? What do men think about women who ask them out? What are some microaggressions you have experienced? How do you feel knowing you have so much more than other people? How does your family background influence your major? What are the best things about being Native? There is no back-and-forth between those asking the questions and those answering. The focus is on listening. The answers reveal important and often unseen differences, as well as many similarities in dreams and worries. 

After five years as part of this teaching team, I know that listening doesn’t just happen. It requires a set of values and skills grounded in the understanding that for many questions there is often more than one right answer. Yes, this is a class devoted to communication, but time devoted to establishing norms for discussion and getting to know one another can be a valuable use of classroom time whatever the topic. When a class becomes a community, everyone learns more. Innovating, experimenting and doubling down on ways to listen to one another, to ask the important follow-up questions and to listen some more, can give inclusion the institutional support it needs. 

Hazel Rose Markus is the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, the co-founder and co-director of Stanford SPARQ , and an author of Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World. 

Photo of Debra Satz.Debra Satz (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Tools for Debate

by Debra Satz

Many of the challenges to the free exchange of ideas on college campuses come from outside: There are individuals and organizations that monitor the teaching of professors who hold controversial views. There are groups that seek simply to incite confrontations. Our public culture is full of voices that hope to shut down or drown out rational deliberation. The existence of the internet also means that many of our well-intentioned mistakes can go viral. All of these social forces lead to a chilling of honest, probing and difficult discussions.

But some of the challenges we face come from within. Let me call out three obstacles to free inquiry that can arise inside our classrooms: 

Conformism. A central impediment with respect to free speech in our classrooms is self-censorship. Many students are afraid to voice opinions that go against what they perceive as the dominant opinion of their peers. Indeed, exercising one’s own judgment when all received opinion seems to go against that judgment is hard. It is far easier to cede to what the philosopher John Stuart Mill calls the “despotism of custom,” to go along with the majority view, to engage in group-think, or at the least to stay quiet. 

Subjectivism. Some students conclude that the existence of disagreement over policy matters means that moral values are subjective—that they are nothing but matters of mere opinion. If that’s right, then there is no point in trying to discuss and reason about them. But that isn’t right. We can subject our values to pressure by seeing if they are consistent with other values and beliefs we hold; we can increase awareness of costs and trade-offs given feasibility constraints and facts; and we can confront our ideas with other ways of thinking and see if they survive critical scrutiny. 

Dogmatism. Some students conclude from the existence of disagreement that someone must be wrong. But not all disagreements are unreasonable. Sincere people motivated to find common ground, and looking at the same evidence, can still disagree about policies because they attach different weights to the moral values involved in such policies, or because the evidence is incomplete and difficult to interpret, or because they assess the risk of different outcomes differently. 

We can confront our ideas with other ways of thinking and see if they survive.

We have pedagogical tools for addressing these difficulties in the classroom. The Socratic method is perhaps the best thing philosophy has produced. Socrates believed in the method of subjecting one’s beliefs to pressure from counterexamples and critical questions. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates begins with the everyday opinion that justice is “truth and returning what one takes,” and argues that this opinion leads to contradictions. By questioning those who hold such an opinion, Socrates shows that the commonsense morality of his time is full of internal tensions and can be brought under pressure by rational thought to resolve those tensions. It’s up to each of us to determine, in the face of critical questioning and open inquiry, our own values and beliefs about what is just. 

The devil’s advocate is another useful tool. When views—including cherished ones—go unchallenged, an educational opportunity is lost. This can even be the case when the opposing views are false or unreasonable. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” It’s important for teachers to model engagement with diverse perspectives. In my classes on democratic thought, I am always sure to teach the strongest criticisms of democracy and, if necessary, to play the role of the devil’s advocate.

At the moment, we are in the midst of rethinking our undergraduate curriculum to make room in freshman year for classes that confront students with the need to reflect on their moral choices and moral responsibilities, to consider the fact of enduring disagreements in a diverse and free society, to recognize the importance of critical reflection, and to model the norms of civility and mutual respect. May our efforts at Stanford succeed and be a model for our society as a whole. 

Debra Satz is the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society. 

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