Free Speech On the College Campus

Thanks to everyone who participated in the discussion about the protests at Middlebury College. I’m quite certain that we’ll be revisiting this topic, because there is no consensus on this topic and there are very strong feelings out there.

I’m taking a seven day mental health break on this issue, but I’ll come back to it. I need time to digest some information and gather more facts.

(We’re in the middle of a blizzard here. The lights just flickered. Not sure how long I can keep this up. I planned on two more blog posts today, but not sure if it’s going to happen. )

42 thoughts on “Free Speech On the College Campus

  1. It should be noted that, although not every comment on Laura’s post is entirely civil, the level of civility is amazingly high for the blogosphere, given the topic and the number of comments. She really is the blog hostess with the mostest.


    1. What was uncivil? I think this gets at my point about what the “moderate conservatives” want. They consider being called “racist” uncivil and insulting. It’s not about opening discussion. It’s about preventing the part of the discussion where people disagree with them.


      1. Yes, I do consider it insulting to be called ‘racist’. It is a nice way for you to stop joint search for truth and shift to ‘enemy’ mode. Coming from you, this: ” It’s about preventing the part of the discussion where people disagree with them.” is absolutely remarkable. So, in the remote possibility that you actually want to know what was uncivil, that’s a start.


    2. I try not to call people racist (though I sometimes fail). People can change. It’s their ideas and behavior that are racist.


      1. Yes, everybody is a little bit racist. I usually use the words racially biased for this particular usage.


      2. I believe the current working definition of racism is prejudice + power. Everyone in the world is prejudiced in one way or another (bigoted is another term), but not everyone has the same power to implement their prejudices. Combating racism has two prongs: one is to work to reduce people’s prejudices. No one can ever not be prejudiced, but people can work on being more open minded and more accepting of people different from themselves. The second prong is dismantling the power that some groups have over others. This is what people talk about when they talk about eliminating structural or institutional racism. We have a system that, through inertia/day-to-day, produces racist outcomes. It has nothing to do with the opinions or thoughts or even identities of the people* working in the system. When people talk about prisons, the media, schools, etc, being racist institutions, they are not saying that everyone, or even anyone, who works in that particular institution is personally racist. They are saying the system is set up to be racist, and will continue to be so unless we take active steps to make it less so.

        I personally believe while the former is important, it’s far more pressing to work on the second prong. The first is hard, time-consuming, and produces only marginal improvement. The second is where real change lies.

        *e.g., you could have a faculty hiring committee or a board of directors made up entirely of queer black disabled transwomen, and they would *still* be taking part in perpetuating institutional racism.


      3. Yes to the explanation, by extension, the same dynamics can play out to other non-normative/marginalized groups (women, immigrants, non-christians).


      4. I don’t see how “Is this idea/research/whatever racist?” could be any less deserving of protection than “Are racially-correlated genetic factors the realest or what?”.


      5. “I believe the current working definition of racism is prejudice + power.”

        That’s not very useful. Speaking as a person who lived in the epicenter of the LA riots, all you need is a rock in the hand or even just a fist to pound a face into pavement, and you’ve got power.

        Throw in a crowd, a gun or two, and fire, and you’ve got lots of power.

        Los Angeles burned for days in 1992.

        Not all power is brick-and-mortar institutional power.


  2. The storm moved west suddenly, and now our blizzard is yours. Have fun with it. It’s now raining here.

    I have to write some syllabi and figure out who my cousin’s wife’s biological father is, so my plate is full today.


      1. We have the DNA. Now we have to put the puzzle pieces together….
        I actually have 2 puzzles I’m working on, the cousin’s wife’s father and the mysterious 2nd cousin who showed up on Ancestry. It’s kind of depressing because I have pretty much confirmed my paper genealogy through DNA for a few generations back, so when I get one of these weird results, I usually have to end up telling someone that one of my family members impregnated one of theirs. I’m getting a bit of a reputation.


      2. My grandmother was obsessed with my grandfather’s genealogy. We have it going back about 600 years, because Norwegians keep good records. There are some interesting stories in there,* but my family have been landowning farmers the entire time, which is pretty common for Norway. (Pretty flat class structure–no nobility, no serfs).

        *Pretty much all to do with the Swedish invasion and then retreat of 1716-1718.


      3. Oh man, I always worry that it’s more like “I’m sorry there’s a possibility one of my great-great-uncles raped your great-grandmother.” I really don’t know what’s worse.

        This is the case currently with another situation. Our best guess at this point is that my great-great-uncle Elmer impregnated her grandmother. What’s kind of hilarious is that he was in the middle of being sued for divorce for hanging out and drinking (illegal) gin in the home of a widow. The wife had private detectives following him. The whole case was written up in the local paper, and it described how the widow was called to the stand and brought the pajamas she had been wearing to show that they weren’t overly sexy. There also was testimony that there was a drunk woman passed out on the sofa with a dishpan covering her head.

        This is why I love genealogy.


    1. I went to the office, but it was very dead, so after lunch I came home, where I added three sentences and two footnotes to my latest genealogical article. Undying fame is near at hand.


      1. God, my husband is completely obsessed with his geneology. He’s got a lot of data, because his whole family has been here for 200 years, but they are a bunch of menonite farmers in PA. (stage whisper — they aren’t that interesting.)


      2. Laura said:

        “He’s got a lot of data, because his whole family has been here for 200 years, but they are a bunch of menonite farmers in PA. (stage whisper — they aren’t that interesting.)”

        That’s really funny, too!

        But to be fair, I bet a geneticist would find them fascinating.


  3. And, to talk about free speech, I keep going back to the idea of what must be permitted and what community sets as its standards.

    In the Middlebury statement on “free inquiry on campus” (, a fairly large group of faculty at Middlebury set forth their opinion of what the standards should be. They state that they consider this set of principles to “seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.” But internal in their document is the principal as well that “No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.” If so, groups of students are certainly free to have different opinions on what those “unassailable” standards of free inquiry on campus might be and they may disagree on some of the points held by the group producing that document (including, for example, whether disrupting a speech is coercive).

    Middlebury can set its standards where it chooses, and, Middlebury gets to set its standards for its students. But, there is no public policy issue in Middlebury’s standards of discourse, whether they choose to allow discussion of the intellectual inferiority of races and women, a flat earth theory, vaccination and autism, and just plain bad science or not. Middlebury gets to set the standards. They can also set the standards differently, for example, perceiving a bad science discussion of the intellectual inferiority of women as being harmful and, indeed, violence against their female students who are trying to learn and participate in a common learning environment.

    Free speech rights are about the right to say what you want in public spaces, to publish a book like the Bell Curve (though no publisher has to be willing to publish it), to write what you wish in a blog, . . . .


    1. Throughout the later twentieth century, universities considered themselves as platforms in which almost absolute freedom of expression was permitted. The university’s primary function was to serve as neutral architectural structure. So just as you can set up a racist website–there being, in America, no internet central authority which shuts down intellectually offensive websites–you can advocate racist (or stupid, or just plain wrong) ideas on college campuses. Given that our universities are the envy of the world, and our country is much, much freer and richer than the Asian countries which some members of the chattering classes so admire, surely the burden is on those who suggest that the governing principles of the American university should change.

      And given the huge government subsidies which universities receive, I don’t accept the contention that the voters and taxpayers should have no say in their governance. See Bob Jones University v. United States.


  4. Hey, I know! Maybe Andrew Wakefield could go to a college campus and talk about how vaccines cause autism! Wouldn’t that be a hoot?


      1. Sorry for the split comment.

        If anything, Andrew Wakefield rather proves the opposite. BS research subjected to heavy scrutiny can be shown to be BS.


      2. “If anything, Andrew Wakefield rather proves the opposite. BS research subjected to heavy scrutiny can be shown to be BS.”

        And yet, vaccination rates seem to be declining. So… it’s shown to be BS to whom? Conveniently, the same people who believe that bad speech can be countered by good speech and that arguments work. Talk about a filter bubble.


      3. The medical community which initially treated his study as a serious concern. Also, more than a few jurisdictions that have substantially narrowed the scope for people seeking exceptions to the requirement that children attending school be vaccinated. To say vaccination rates are going down, while true, ignores the substantial and growing reaction that grew directly out of that very discussion. And while I regret the lower vaccination rates, and strongly support those laws… both science and public policy are messy. You don’t get to the right answer right away, you don’t convince everyone right away, and if you want to get there eventually you keep on trucking.

        More generally, Wakefield got started with an article in the Lancet. So what exactly is it you are suggesting? He shouldn’t be allowed to present his paper on campus? Or his critics? Or are we just banishing him now that he’s been discredited? Some people still seem to believe him. It’s hard to believe discrediting him again will hurt.


  5. No one has mentioned this piece at Brookings on the Middlebury attacks:

    All true, and important. But one overlooked irony of the events at Middlebury is how they perfectly proved some of the points that Murray made in his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which he had been invited to discuss. The book documents the separation of a “new upper class”, raised in rich neighborhoods, immersed in liberal, cosmopolitan values, and educated at expensive, liberal universities. In other words, it profiles the students of Middlebury College.

    Middlebury’s students are among the richest and most privileged in America. The average enrollee comes from a household making a quarter of a million dollars a year, according to recent research on universities and social mobility. As many students at Middlebury come from the top 1% of households (23%) as come from the bottom four quintiles (24%). The annual cost of attending is almost $64,000 a year.

    The domination of elite institutions of higher education by the upper middle class is a big problem for social mobility, of course. It looks like it might be bad news for free speech, too.

    The writers have graphs.

    I am growing concerned about groups of people separating from their fellow citizens. Gated communities. Anti-vaccination clusters, which have been found to be white and well-to-do:

    And then the organized groups leaving civil society altogether, “homesteading,” opting out of doing things like securing birth certificates for their children, educating their children at home from the Bible, such as described in the Radiolab podcast, “The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist.”


      1. I’ll apologize for being too serious.

        BUT, this is a feel-good story? Two congresspeople believe driving rather than flying is a hardship? Sharing a car with an adult really, really similar to you is a great step for mankind?

        Step back a little, and these two people, although representing different parties, are very similar. They’re from the same community–Congress. They represent the same state. They spend significant periods of time in the same room.

        I’m talking about being concerned about groups of people deciding it’s bad to have any record of one’s presence in the larger world, like, say, a social security number or birth certificate. Groups of people deciding that fluoride in the water or pasteurized milk is a health threat.

        While searching for examples of the sorts of groups that make me worry turned up lots of references to people homeschooling for religious reasons, I’m not convinced the withdrawal from modern society is at its heart inspired by religious reasons.

        It’s as if the internet allows people with divergent beliefs to find each other. After a certain threshold, a new community is born? And that community may decide to take a physical presence. Or it may be physically dispersed, but connected by the internet. And some communities are seen as virtuous, such as vegans, or hipsters, or people into geocaching, while others are seen as threatening.


    1. I agree with your concerns, and I would be down with some sort of large-scale income and race desegregation programs with actual teeth. Getting them to work is hard, especially because white people are often hostile to having black neighbors and especially to sending their children to schools they view as “black,” but I think it could be doable with the right sort of policy programs. I’ve grown up in and currently live in racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods, and I think it helps to make everyone more open minded and tolerant.


      1. Actually, thinking about what I wrote my last line isn’t always true. When my traditionally working class white neighborhood received large amounts of refugees from nonwhite countries, it led to a rise in hate crimes and neo-Nazi affiliation. My larger neighborhood had a pretty serious skinhead problem and was the site of one of the most infamous hate crimes of the 1980s. Things got better after that, but obviously a program would have to try to anticipate this and prevent it from happening.


      2. Well, first off, I don’t actually have policies. I am just agreeing with Cranberry that class and other sorts of segregation isn’t good for society. Since the world in which we took mixed income communities seriously would look very different from the one we have now, I imagine Laura would have been having to make different choices in a different context.

        If I had to come up with something, it would probably be zoning laws with teeth and mandated section 8 housing. Instead of preventing free movement, which is very hard to restrict in a way that is fair, let’s prevent NIMBYism.


  6. I find it a bit amusing that the people and organizations attacking elite private colleges for being elitist are the ones that are embracing policies that funnel money from the lower and middle classes to the upper upper classes. “You liberals need to stop being so elitist! Now let’s have tax cuts for the 0.1% paid for by Medicaid cuts.” It reminds me of Andrew Sullivan yelling at liberals for not helping to end opioid addiction in rural white America when liberals are the people who pushed the Medicaid expansion that rural white Americans could have health care and specifically included addiction treatment coverage in the things covered by Medicaid expansion.* It would be much more amusing if it weren’t so infuriating.

    *There’s also the added bonus, which is also true of Murray’s Coming Apart, which is if liberals behave poorly, it’s the fault of liberals, but if conservatives behave poorly, it’s also the fault of liberals. We’re supposed to be keeping everyone in line and solving everyone’s problems, from elite college students to rural white Appalachians.


    1. “[I]f liberals behave poorly, it’s the fault of liberals, but if conservatives behave poorly, it’s also the fault of liberals.”

      Hello? Does anyone remember the genesis of this discussion? To refresh everyone’s recollection, we started with a bunch of liberals sending a college professor to the hospital. To which various commenters responded with attacks on conservative speakers and vows to shout them down wherever possible. How about if liberals stop (i) throwing firebombs and assaulting professors and (ii) blaming conservatives whenever they do it? Then they can worry about other people’s morals.


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