Is free speech threatened on college campuses? An audience casts its vote

Wendy Kaminer, John McWhorter, moderator John Donvan, Shaun Harper, and Yale professor Jason Stanley on stage at an IQ2 debate.
Wendy Kaminer, John McWhorter, moderator John Donvan, Shaun Harper, and Yale professor Jason Stanley on stage at the debate.

In Jason Stanley’s classrooms at Yale, civil debates about controversial and contentious topics take place all the time, the philosophy professor said during the Intelligence2 (IQ2) debate that took place on campus on March 1.

Sometimes those class debates are emotional, and maybe even feel hurtful to some of the participants, Stanley remarked at the event, but they continue to happen and are learning experiences both for himself and his students.

Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy, was one of four speakers in the IQ2debate that took place before a full audience at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The Oxford-style debate, hosted by the nonprofit Intelligence Squared U.S. Foundation, was recorded live as part of the IQ2Debates series, which reaches millions of people through multiple platforms, including radio, television, live streaming, podcasts, and interactive digital content. The award-winning IQ2 Debates series is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes.

The debate at Yale was moderated by ABC News correspondent John Donvan and featured — in addition to Stanley — writer and lawyer Wendy Kaminer, Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, and Shaun Harper, executive director for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also teaches in the Graduate School of Education. The four debated the motion “Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus,” with Kaminer and McWhorter debating in favor of the motion and Stanley and Harper arguing against it.

Audience members also participated in the debate by asking questions following a first round of opening statements by the debaters, and by voting on the motion themselves both at the start of the debate and afterwards.

On the ‘yes’ side

Kaminer, a civil libertarian who has written about the intersections of law and culture, and McWhorter, whose articles on language and on race have been published in major American newspapers, cited examples of faculty members and administrators on college campuses across the nation who have been fired or forced to resign for saying something that is considered by others to be offensive. Both argued that while free speech is allowed on campus, the right to free speech is increasingly being diminished.

It is practically axiomatic on many campuses that speech considered hateful to disadvantaged or vulnerable students is a form of discrimination or even violence,” said Kaminer in her opening statement. “Whenever people want to restrict speech, they call it ‘verbal conduct.’ Free speech is said to be an instrument of privilege used to silence the relatively powerless. This means that equality requires the unequal distribution of speech rights but also means that the right of listeners not to be offended can be elevated over the right to speak, which means that your right to speak may depend on the unpredictable subjective responses of your audience. But free speech can’t consist of what people don’t mind hearing said. Words are weapons, advocates of restricting hate speech like to say, and I agree: Words are weapons. That’s precisely why we protect them. Weaponized speech is the ideal form of nonviolent political combat.”

Weaponized speech,” she said, has been part of every movement for social change or social justice in America, including the recent student protests about discrimination on college campuses throughout the nation.

The trouble is, so many of these movements aim to punish and suppress other people’s speech by labeling them ‘micro aggressions,’ forms of discrimination … or even likening them to violence,” she contended.

She noted that on certain campuses, controversial speakers were disinvited in response to student protests, and she claimed that about half of the colleges and universities in this country have speech codes that “prohibit some form of oppressive speech.” She argued that students often attempt to enforce these speech codes.

I strongly defend the right of students to protest anything they want to protest in however many uncivil terms they want to use. The problem is that a lot of these protests are aimed not at trying to convince others not to use certain kinds of language but to see them punished for using language, to try to get administrative sanctions,” Kaminer argued.

In her closing statement, she described how a speaker at Williams College who was invited to take part in a series called  “Uncomfortable Learning” had his invitation rescinded because of accusations he had made racist remarks. The student who organized the lecture series, Kaminer said, is an African American student who is proponent of free speech and invited controversial speakers to campus to “expose himself and others to dissenting and even obnoxious views.” She said the student was “vilified” and threatened on campus, and was spoken to in “slave dialect,” even by other African American students.

This is what happens when you demonize expression of unwelcome views,” Kaminer told the audience. “You create communities of frightened conformists.”

McWhorter, in supporting that view, emphasized that situations like the one Kaminer described at Williams College are not “outliers,” but are happening on college campuses with increasing frequency. He argued that the current tendency is to “shut down” others who do not share “leftist” positions on political and cultural issues.

What we’re being told is that the leftist position is truth incarnate, and that on that position … there can be no further debate. And that’s problematic. It's problematic on a campus, for example, because it’s fundamentally anti-intellectual,” McWhorter stated.

He said that “justice is complicated” and not so “black and white,” and that students need to be careful about what they call “micro aggressions” or racism, as even those accusations are open to debate.

Instead, I'm afraid what we’re seeing on one campus or another is an idea that shaming people and shutting them down by the ample use of buzzwords, slogans, and sonorous cadence is somehow okay when it comes to espousing a leftist agenda. It's as if we’re at the end of ideas,” McWhorter contended. He later added: “I love the left. It’s not that the left is wrong. The problem is when the idea seems to be that if you don’t agree with the leftist position, then you are ignorant at best and immoral at worst.

I’m claiming that is the new environment,” he continued. “When someone is called a racist in America in 2016, it is practically equivalent to calling [him or her] a pedophile. Therefore, when you call someone racist, you effectively silence all but the bravest people who most enjoy an argument. That’s just the point. Call someone a racist, you shut them down. And it’s happening a lot.”

On the ‘no’ side

Stanley strongly disagreed with this view, saying, “Exercising free speech to urge someone not to say or do racist things is not the denial of the right to say or do racist things. … Many of us believe racist statements are false. So when we call a statement racist what we’re doing is [questioning] a perceived falsehood. And how could that be in tension with the mission of the university, which is the pursuit of truth?

The act of protesting,” he continued, “is not the denial of free speech; it is the exercise of free speech. What is happening on campuses today is more speech, not less. Voices too often unheard or kept at the margins are finally being raised and heard. A central purpose of the university is to allow disputes that too often happen on the battlefield to occur in the classroom instead. I, for one, am glad robust discourse — sometimes difficult — is taking place on our campuses. When I hear that student protestors are silencing and intimidating people, I scratch my head. Students are advocating for open political discussions — sometimes heated — and justice for all.”

Stanley said that on the Yale campus, these discussions are taking place everywhere: in the dining halls, classrooms, and residential colleges, and he noted that the fact that the IQ2 debate was happening at all on campus is further proof that free speech is “alive and well.”

What is truly special is that what we are doing [tonight] is what we are supposed to be doing on campus: thinking, arguing, speaking, listening, agreeing, and disagreeing. This is what happens in every imaginable way at campuses across Connecticut and our nation.”

In his closing statement, Stanley noted that issues about race and diversity are being raised at the Oscars, in public discussions about police brutality, and in various other settings, and that these conversations are not unique to college campuses.

Free speech is not threatened by students voicing their positions about social justice, even in emotional tones,” he argued. “It is threatened by people calling those people bullies, representing them as authoritarians and really frightening, like North Korea. It is threatened by representing claims of injustice as psychiatric problems and weaknesses, and it is threatened by belittling the students’ ability to tolerate debate.”

Harper told the audience that at the Center for the Study of Race & Equity at UPenn, he has interviewed students who shared with him their pain and hurt about discrimination taking place on their campuses — that he hears students’ tales of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other kinds of discrimination every day on college campuses across the nation.

When we have students talking about realities of race, or when we hear students of color unpack their painful stories of micro aggressions and stereotypes and other things that happen to them, we ask them: ‘What do you want the institution to do?’ Never once, not once, have I heard them say anything about speech codes. They want the curriculum to reflect their humanity. The want the consciousness of their professors and their peers to be raised so that people don’t do this to future generations of students on college campuses,” Harper said.

He agreed with Stanley that student protests are meant to open discussion and conversation, rather than to stifle it.

When a person of color says what you just said sounded or felt racist, we’re not shutting down the conversation,” Harper said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite: We are inviting you to engage and learn. It’s a university after all. Shouldn’t this be the place where one learns that saying that all Muslims are terrorists and that all Mexicans are rapists is extremely problematic?”

In his closing statement Harper said: “Given the time and limitations of this debate format, I cannot give you crushing weight of evidence that I have heard from students, thousands of them, who have participated in my studies about the experiences they have on their campuses — not just encounters with racism, but also sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of harassment in this respect that target and undermine their humanity and sense of belonging on the campus. … They are standing up for themselves, and they are finally exercising their freedom of speech. For years and years, those people have sat silent and did not say anything … No one is saying to people that you can’t say ridiculous things. What they are saying is that you are going to be held accountable for them. We’re going to engage you in a conversation about them, and it is your choice to withdraw from that conversation because you've never been held accountable for that perspective.”

At the end of the event, Donvan congratulated the debaters for their “respectful,” “informative,” “civil,” and “gutsy” discussion and for “elevating the level of public discourse tonight.” He then announced that, based on audience votes, the winning team was Kaminer and McWhorter. Sixty-six percent of the audience agreed with their view that free speech is being threatened on campus, a 17% increase from the tally at the start of the debate, while 25% agreed with Stanley and Harper that free speech is not being undermined on campus, a number that was 2% lower than it was at the outset of the debate. Nine percent of the voters were undecided after hearing the debate.

To see the debate and learn the results of online voting by visiting the IQ2 website.

Related

Media Contact

Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,