University News

Free speech debated for Constitution Day

Event’s two speakers discuss first amendment’s role in shaping classroom dynamics, discourse

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2016

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argues for free speech at college campuses.

At the University’s annual Constitution Day lecture, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Stanley Fish, visiting professor of Law at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, explored the question: Should free speech be limited on college campuses?

The Political Theory Project hosted the event to provide “a space to come together to hear and discuss challenging topics in good faith,” wrote Daniel D’Amico, associate director of the Political Theory Project, in an email to The Herald.

After an introduction from John Tomasi, professor of political science and director of the Political Theory Project, Lukianoff stepped up to the podium to present his view on the acceptable and unacceptable limits of free speech.

Lukianoff first offered circumstances where free speech should be limited, like “true threats, obscenity and defamation.” He then described situations where free speech should be limited as behavior, not speech. For example, people “don’t have the right to stop an event from happening,” he said.

After listing this variety of situations where free speech can be curtailed, Lukianoff then defined his two beliefs that make him “radical” in his defense of free speech. The first principle is the bedrock rule where, “you can’t ban something simply because it’s offensive … (because) offensive is too subjective,” Lukianoff said. Next, he defended “viewpoint neutrality,” which means “you can’t ban viewpoints you dislike,” he added.

Lukianoff ended his talk with the advice: “Make it a goal to seek out smart people with whom you disagree.”

Fish then stepped up to the microphone. “You have invited two speakers who more or less agree,” he said.

But Fish then argued that, at universities, there is a freedom to do “your academic job,” but should be no freedom of expression. To connect this idea to Brown, Fish quoted President Christina Paxson’s P’19 op-ed in the Washington Post: “Freedom of expression is an essential component of academic freedom.”

“This is false,” Fish said. Universities must protect themselves against outside forces that try to shape their political agenda by employing “gatekeepers” — like deans or professors — who choose what voices should be heard on campus.

Engaging in academia and social justice in the same space is “a debasement of teaching and of social justice,” he said.                             

“The university is less democratic than it is Darwinian,” he added.

Currently, students are the most toxic force in the politicization of universities, he said. Students are “apprentices” and “have no right to participate in the shaping of the own scene of their instruction,” he added.

Professors and students should try to understand ideas, not craft foreign policy, he added, before ending his speech with a directive to both ­­— “do your job.”

After the two speakers finished their talks, members from the audience asked questions, most of them directed at Fish.

One student asked Fish why professors or administrators should have the authority to limit speech on campus.          

“The relationship is between someone who knows the subject and students who want to know the subject,” Fish said.

The student pressed further, adding, “we aren’t arguing about the laws of physics” but about social issues, some of which leave ample room for debate.

“Social justice can be studied, … but the moment you take social justice seriously, … you’ve lost the university entirely,” Fish said.

Another audience member asked Fish about the role of student voices on a committee that created the University’s Open Curriculum and enhanced the University’s prestige.

In response, Fish said the University became more prestigious as a result of better recruiting by the admission office. No one listens to student voices on committees, Fish added. “That’s the way it is.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Daniel D’Amico is a visiting professor of political science at the Political Theory Project. In fact, he is the associate director of the Political Theory Project. The Herald regrets the error. 

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  1. Prof. Ross Cheit says:

    To use a word that Professor Fish employed last night to dismiss a student’s comments, the idea that Brown was transformed in the late 60s by the admissions office is silly. The good professor would benefit from a little historical knowledge. The major role that Ira Magaziner ’69 and Elliot Maxwell ’68 played in transforming Brown should give Professor Fish pause in arguing that students should play no role in issues concerning university governance.

    • I completely agree! We owe the Open Curriculum almost entirely to a student-led reform movement that made Brown the distinctive place it is today. Indeed, even the actions of the Admissions Office in the late 1960s to which Professor Fish referred were, in fact, student-driven. The Black student walkout in 1968 was directly responsible for Brown’s first systematic efforts to attract minority students. As a result, the class of 1973 was the first in Brown’s long history to have a significant number of Black students.

    • Social justice advocacy’s encroachment on the autonomy of academic work/teaching/learning is not the same as examples of the student driven curricular reforms of the 1960s. By conflating the two, a critical distinction that underpins liberal education and democratic society is lost.

      The good professor above would also ‘benefit from a little historical knowledge,’ by revisiting John Stuart Mill to clarify the distinction.

      Magaziner and Maxwell’s reforms were consistent with classical principles of freedom of thought and expression. In fact, one could make a compelling argument that the New Curriculum aggressively advanced those principles.

      Today’s advocacy of safe spaces, policing micro-aggressions, promoting (not analyzing) the veracity of concepts like white supremacy, shouting down speakers, and intimidating faculty and administrators stands in direct opposition to the principles that underpinned Magaziner and Maxwell’s reforms.

      An interesting question for the good professor from Yeshiva University would have been to explain his understanding of the role of religious ideology in higher education and whether its admixture also risks ‘losing the university entirely.’

      • These are excellent points on the distinctions between campus activism during the sixties vs today.

        Much of this is summed up in the article “The Roots of Campus Leftism: Who are the oppressors and who the oppressed?” By Warren Treadgol

      • Alum ’97 wrote: “Social justice advocacy’s encroachment on the autonomy of academic work/teaching/learning is not the same as examples of the student driven curricular reforms of the 1960s. By conflating the two, a critical distinction that underpins liberal education and democratic society is lost.”
        With respect to Alum ’97, he seems to misunderstand Prof. Cheit’s comments, and he certainly doesn’t realize Prof. Cheit’s views on the current situation at Brown. Like Prof. Cheit, I tried to react to Stanley Fish’s assertion that students have no place in university governance or reform.
        I lived through the Magazine-Maxwell reforms as a student at Brown, and they exemplified the very best of academic engagement and student activism. Ross Cheit was NOT trying to establish an equivalence between today’s events and those of the 1960s at Brown. Rather, he clearly pointed out that Fish’s blanket rejection of student activism was an overreach. Prof. Cheit and I (and many other faculty and students) are deeply concerned about the current climate at Brown with respect to free expression, and have brought those concerns to the University Administration and to the public many times. Prof. Cheit is very much on the side of robust free expression on these issues!

        • The clarification is appreciated. I don’t believe Prof. Cheit disputes (or endorses) anything that precedes or follows my second paragraph.

          The risk of defeating Prof. Fish’s extreme position using the Magaziner/Maxwell strategy is that it allows recent events at Brown to be understood, defended, and presented as just another chapter of the student activism on campus of the 1960s and 1970s.

          The student activism that drove the New Curriculum is similar to the student activism that shut down the Ray Kelly speech only insofar as students were involved in both examples.

          That observation is no more valuable to today’s debate than any trivially true assertion is to any discussion. Ira Magaziner and Jenny Li are hardly bedfellows.

  2. Prof. Ross Cheit says:

    Nameless Alum ’97: If you were in attendance at Fish’s talk, he most definitely took the position that students should not be involved in ANY aspect of university governance, including the new curriculum. He acted as if students played no role in those developments, which he agreed were beneficial. And if you think I was making any kind of point about those other issues, then you apparently did not read my very brief comment carefully.

    • No. I read your comment carefully, and had no intention of misrepresenting your position.

      Prof. Fish is nuts. Unfortunately, his position is so extreme that it can be defeated by pointing to any example of student involvement in university governance, at any university, at any time, that happens to have resulted in an outcome Prof. Fish finds agreeable.

      Your enthusiasm for Magaziner and Maxwell, however, shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that what is going on today at Brown is remotely comparable.

      To focus on Magaziner and Maxwell as a counterargument to the position that students are ‘today’s most toxic force of politicization on campus’ – presumably what the questioner responding to Fish was attempting to do – is to fail by false analogy.

      And, no. I wasn’t at the discussion. However, I’m not defending Prof. Fish. My remark should reveal a deep suspicion that Prof. Fish isn’t exactly on the mark.

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