Harvard President Drew Faust gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in her recent 2017 commencement address. There was, however, one passage where Faust chose to focus on the price of Harvard’s commitment to free speech, arguing that it “is paid disproportionately by” those students who don’t fit the traditional profile of being “white, male, Protestant, and upper class.” That point has been illustrated by a few recent controversies over speakers whose words were deemed offensive by some members of those non-traditional groups of students. But focusing solely on those controversies, and on a handful of elite campuses, risks obscuring a larger point: Disadvantaged groups are also among the primary beneficiaries of vigorous free speech protections.
Universities have often served as springboards for progressive social movements and helped to consolidate their gains. They have been able to fulfill these functions largely by serving as spaces where ideas—including radical and contrarian ideas—could be voiced and engaged with.
Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. This becomes particularly clear when we leave the world of elite private universities and consider the kinds of academic institutions most students attend, particularly students of color.
Notwithstanding President Faust’s uplifting statistics about Harvard’s growing diversity (driven largely by international students)–the reality is that, as compared to white Americans, blacks and Latinos are much more likely to attend public universities and community colleges than elite private institutions. The same goes with those from low-income backgrounds as compared to the wealthy.
This dynamic even holds with regards to faculty: female professors and professors of color are more likely than their white male counterparts to end up teaching at public universities as opposed to elite institutions like Harvard.
Here’s why this matters: In virtue of their heavy reliance on taxpayer funding and major donors, public colleges are much more receptive to calls from outside the university to punish faculty and staff for espousing controversial speech or ideas. Groups like Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, or Campus Watch exploit this vulnerability, launching populist campaigns to get professors fired, or to prevent them from being hired, on the basis of something they said. The primary targets of these efforts end up being mostly women, people of color, and religious minorities (especially Muslims and the irreligious) when they too forcefully or bluntly condemn systems, institutions, policies, practices, and ideologies they view as corrupt, exploitative, oppressive or otherwise intolerable.
Those most vulnerable to being fired for expressing controversial views are the ever-growing numbers of contingent faculty—who also tend to be disproportionately women and minorities. Meanwhile, the better-insulated tenured and tenure-track faculty tend to be white men.
As a result, if progressives are concerned with ensuring a more representative faculty, if they are committed to protecting freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for women and minorities, then they need to be committed to protecting free speech across the board. Every attempt to censor Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopoulos makes it easier to mount a campaign to fire someone like Lisa Durden (who made controversial comments about holding an “all black Memorial Day celebration” that excluded whites). Progressives lose the moral high ground they would need to defend radical and provocative speech—which is unfortunate because they are arguably the ones who need free-speech protections most.
Americans tend to be politically to the right of most university faculty and students—and as a result the public is more likely to be shocked and offended by views expressed by progressive scholars than by academic conservatives, who are few in number, generally rather moderate politically, and usually cautious about what they say publicly. Politicians are also more likely to throw their weight behind campaigns against left-leaning scholars, given that Republicans control most state governments, and thereby the purse strings of most public universities.
And if progressive scholars face a constant threat from the right coming from off-campus, they also face a threat from the left on campus. Many of the student-led campaigns that have made national news in the last two years have targeted professors who, themselves, identify as liberal or progressive—but who managed to challenge or violate some tenet of the prevailing activist orthodoxy.
Progressives, therefore, have reason to celebrate the fact that conservatives and their allies seem to be rallying behind the cause of free speech on campus. They can take advantage of this moment to institutionalize more robust protections, clearer standards and policies, and a healthier civic culture that turns disagreements into opportunities for learning. If progressives fail to embrace free speech, and if they cede this basic American value to the right, then, as Harvard’s President Faust warned in her commencement address, any effort to limit some speech “opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own.”