As important as freedom of speech may be, the failure to put it in the context of other values leads us to some serious problems for our society and, more specifically, for our educational institutions.
In terms of our national political life, we have seen the consequences of defending freedom of speech while attending insufficiently to other essential matters, notably the difference between truth and lies. We face a difficult task if we are to rise to the occasion of saving our form of government.
The damage a fundamentalist approach to free speech can cause our educational systems should be easier to address, given a commitment to core values regarding facts, logic and evaluating sources of information. Where we cannot arrive at the truth about a particular matter definitively, we can still get closer and at least move into the neighborhood. And when we are not ourselves in a position to judge the truth value of what we encounter, we must have ways of evaluating sources and learning how particular experts obtain their special knowledge.
Faculty members who have been especially focused on defending their freedom of speech need to be paying more attention to the quality of their speech. They need to be mindful of their professional responsibilities as well as their rights. That is why they are the ones getting paid and students are the ones paying.
An emphasis on rights is understandable and important at a time that is difficult for faculty generally and especially so for those without tenure. Moreover, some measures taken against faculty members in particular cases — removal from the classroom or even termination — have been clearly out of scale with the specific offense. But there is no downside to complementing a concern for faculty rights with a concern for the professional responsibilities that entitle faculty members to take pride in their calling.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of speech supported by facts, sourcing and an interest in truth, faculty members need to teach their students — and themselves — how to engage most effectively with those holding different views. They should help students resist the attractions of indulging in self-righteous disdainful abuse. Trying to find out why a person holds certain beliefs is a necessary ethnographic step in the process of dialogue.
While respectful dialogue does not work with everyone, it shapes the ground rules of what is rightly defined as “education.” And education takes place not only in the classroom, but also in campus “free speech” zones, since students do not shed their perceptions of faculty/student roles and relationships — and the unequal nature of them — when they enter such places.
A breakdown between private and public spheres has especially aggravated our current problems about speech. What faculty members used to say in private — for example, while enjoying a drink with some colleagues — is now shared on various nonprivate platforms. What was fine in the former context is not so fine in the latter. We now live with the danger of privacy disappearing altogether.
Our attitudes to free speech are part of a wider, uncritical cultural celebration of “freedom” abroad in our land. And thus we see many of our fellow citizens refusing to wear masks during a dangerous pandemic and some of our legislators insisting on their right to carry firearms when they report for their day jobs.
An unreflective approach to freedom of speech is often paired with promotion of a “marketplace of ideas.” Let us note, however, that a marketplace is where you can sell anything — anything — that someone else is willing to buy. That may be a less than helpful or inspirational way to think about a democracy, or, for that matter, a society more generally.
We have already followed the path from First Amendment/freedom of speech fundamentalism to Citizens United, a major contribution to turning our democracy into an oligarchy. Will we follow it to where it undermines what education itself is supposed to give to us?