As the meltdown on the Berkeley campus reminds us, free speech seems to have a fragile beachhead on university campuses. While "safe spaces" have multiplied across academia, the idea that campuses should be zones that respect free speech seems to have withered.
While some campus administrations have taken strong and principled stands, the record is decidedly mixed. So this is an excellent time to lay out the fundamental principles that underlie academic freedom and the defense of vigorous, even offensive, speech on college campuses.
This is also an area where legislators can weigh in constructively. This week, the Goldwater Institute sketched out an agenda for action that could be a model for state legislatures -- including Wisconsin's. Good stuff. You can read the whole proposal here.
The model legislation presented and explained in this brief does several things:*It creates an official university policy that strongly affirms the importance of free expression, nullifying any existing restrictive speech codes in the process.*It prevents administrators from disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial, whom members of the campus community wish to hear from.*It establishes a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who interferes with the free-speech rights of others.*It allows persons whose free-speech rights have been improperly infringed by the university to recover court costs and attorney’s fees.*It reaffirms the principle that universities, at the official institutional level, ought to remain neutral on issues of public controversy to encourage the widest possible range of opinion and dialogue within the university itself.*It ensures that students will be informed of the official policy on free expression.*It authorizes a special subcommittee of the university board of trustees to issue a yearly report to the public, the trustees, the governor, and the legislature on the administrative handling of free-speech issues.Taken together, these provisions create a system of interlocking incentives designed to encourage students and administrators to respect and protect the free expression of others.
The yawning gap between universities’ role as citadels of free inquiry and the ugly reality of campus censorship is often the fault of administrators who share the progressive belief that universities must restrict speech to protect the sensitivities of minorities and women. Even those who aren’t ideologically committed can be wary of bad publicity. They often capitulate to the loudest and angriest demonstrators to get controversies off the front page.
By enacting bills based on the Goldwater Institute proposal, state legislatures would enable colleges and universities to create an educational community in which students and faculty can enjoy the freedom to defend their views, air their disagreements, explore competing perspectives, seek knowledge, and passionately pursue the truth.That would advance the cause of public higher education. It would also serve as an inspiration and prod to private colleges and universities—where freedom of speech today is no less imperiled—to renew their worthiest traditions.
Governor Walker and the GOP legislature could be national leaders on the issue by making passage of the legislation a top priority in upcoming session.