Brown examines relationship of free speech to academic mission

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One year after becoming embroiled in a national debate over “safe spaces” from offensive speech, Brown University students and faculty received a crash course of sorts on freedom of speech and its relationship to the academic mission of a liberal arts college.

On Thursday, the Political Theory Project hosted lectures by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a first amendment and civil liberties advocacy group, and Stanley Fish, an English scholar and law professor at the Cardozo School of Law who has famously questioned the concept of freedom of speech on campus.

The event, held in honor of Constitution Day, on Sept. 17, posed the question, “should free speech be limited on college campuses?”

The Political Theory Project is the same academic center that last fall held a controversial debate on campus sexual assault that sparked criticism from Brown President Christina Paxson, who arranged a competing lecture on campus while students set up a “safe space” for anyone who felt the topic “too upsetting.”

The university has since pushed back on the notion that it has safe spaces on campus where students are “coddled” and shielded from ideas they find offensive or troubling.

Lukianoff provided a rundown of First Amendment law and how it relates to colleges campuses.

He noted that there is no such thing as an absolute right to free speech—true threats, libel, and obscenity, for example, fall outside the protection of the U.S. Constitution. So does harassment and disruption of other speakers. Students who protest to the point of shutting down campus speakers, he noted, are undermining, rather than exercising, freedom of speech.

“You do not have a right to stop a speech,” Lukianoff said.

Lukianoff argued that the first amendment protects offensive speech, as well as speech which is non-controversial—a bedrock principle that Lukianoff suggested has been violated all too often on college campuses.  He pointed to speech codes in effect on many campuses.  Fifty three of these have faced legal challenges, and none has survived, according to Lukianoff.

Brown is among the institutions of higher learning that maintains such a code. FIRE has a three-tiered ranking system of speech codes using a metaphor of a traffic light. “Red light” speech codes are considered the worst offenders, followed by yellow. A “green light” indicates that FIRE regards the code as First Amendment compliant.  Brown currently has a “yellow light,” said Lukianoff, urging the school to adopt the necessary reforms to bring it to green-light status.

But the second speaker, Fish, questioned the benefits of allowing unfettered freedom of speech on campus, instead arguing in favor of “academic freedom.”  The two phrases might sound redundant, but Fish argued that academic freedom was a privilege largely reserved for professors that flowed from the mission of the university, which he defined as the “pursuit of truth” and the “advancement of knowledge.”

In such an environment, Fish said, academic freedom exists mainly so that the professors can do their jobs of passing on knowledge to students, whom he described as mere apprentices. “Students have no academic freedom rights. None at all,” Fish said—a comment that sparked laughter from the audience.

Fish also took aim at another widely accepted convention of modern college culture: student evaluations of their professors, which he said should not be allowed. That too drew laughter.

Fish criticized activism for any cause as outside the mission of universities. Social justice, Fish argued, can be taught, but should not be practiced on campus. He excoriated administrators for adjusting university policies—even structuring investments or endowments—to serve political demands of certain groups.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, a female speaker challenged Fish’s master-apprentice model of a liberal arts school, noting that Brown’s current open curriculum—in which there are no core requirements and students design their own course of study—was developed in 1969 with heavy input from students.

“It made it into a much more interesting university,” said the woman, who did not identify herself.

Fish disagreed. He said students on official school committees have little to say and what they do say is ignored. At Brown, he said credit for what makes the school exemplary should go not to its unique curriculum but the transformation of its admissions office into a “world-class strategic admissions office.”

“That to me is the great story of Brown University. It learned how to recruit good students better than anyone else,” Fish said.

The NewBostonPost asked Fish if limiting academic freedom to professors gave them a license to stymie the expression of minority political opinions in the classroom.

“That’s wrong,” Fish said.

What then is his solution for academic departments that have become completely dominated by one political or ideological perspective? Fish said there was no solution other than for students to attend another school. “There’s no general obligation of a department or a college to be ecumenical,” he said.

Students seemed more intrigued than troubled by Fish’s vision of the university—which was sometimes referred to as an ivory tower model during the forum. “It was interesting to hear Fish’s speech,” said Daniel Shemano, a sophomore.

“I think it was really a talk about what a university should be,” added fellow sophomore, Benjamin Guggenheim. But, Guggenheim added, he has little hope of changing Brown’s highly politicized campus environment. “It’s so ingrained in Brown’s culture,” he said.