My career in higher education has centered on the exchange of dangerous ideas.
I have held faculty positions at Tulane University, Merrimack College, the University of Minnesota, Duluth and West Virginia University where I currently teach courses on business and leadership ethics. Not a day goes by where I do not discuss with students and the local community ideas that are considered by many to be painful and highly offensive. This is not a hobby; it is my job. And, given the current climate within the United States, my job has gotten harder.
Over time, there has been a palpable increase in student resistance and protest to purportedly offensive research and speech. Some of the more recent examples include Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury College, Laura Kipnis’s talk at Wellesley College, Wendy McElroy’s debate with Jessica Valenti at Brown University and Milo Yiannopoulos’s attempted talk at Berkeley. Students, alumni, faculty and administrators have used various methods — open letters, protests, and the heckler’s veto — to stop such events from occurring. And, in some cases, it escalated to outright violence.
Unfortunately, this may be widespread. In a 2017 Brooking’s survey, the majority of students, 53 percent, would prefer colleges prohibit “certain speech or viewpoints,” that may be considered offensive or biased so as “to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views.”
In my own courses, I have felt this shift in sentiment. I have observed many students who refrain from speaking because they fear they will offend others. Moreover, I have seen students express righteous indignation at the mere prospect of hearing a view that contradicts their own.
In late 2016, Yiannopoulos spoke at WVU. While I personally detest him and his views that is not an appropriate reason to prevent him from speaking. Overall, I was happy with how our university’s president handled Yiannopoulos’s talk. At that time, Gordon Gee said, “We never want to censor a person’s right to free speech. It is through listening to people who think differently from others that we learn about the world and discover who we really are. And I believe that is one of the most valuable experiences one can have on a college campus.” I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, university administrations change and shift. And, for every university president that is great on this issue, like our Gordon Gee, there are presidents like George Bridges, president of Evergreen State College, who are terrible. Moreover, when a majority of students in the United States would prefer to be sheltered from offensive views, it seems likely that future administrations might very well cater to such a market.
That is why I am pleased with the introduction of the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act (Senate Bill 111). This bill seeks to further protect the marketplace of ideas by ensuring the protection of First Amendment rights at any public institution of higher learning.
The marketplace of ideas is essential to free thought and education. To ensure that we have knowledge and are educating young people for the future, we must protect the sharing of ideas. This remains true even when such ideas are painful, obnoxious, offensive and dangerous.
In Jonathan Rauch’s now classic book exploring modern attacks on free speech, “Kindly Inquisitors,” Rauch writes that, “knowledge is painful … (It) does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it … It is not good to offend people, but it is necessary. A no offense society is a no knowledge society.” Humanity’s natural inclination is to avoid pain and offense. But, indulging in such self-protective inclinations will only serve to compromise knowledge.
Given the constant struggles that all universities and colleges face to secure and retain students and given the natural human inclination to avoid pain and offense, this seems to offer a perverse incentive in higher education. Instead, then, of respecting the free speech rights of those that offer heterodox ideas, these institutions have an incentive to disregard such rights.
Dr. Shane Courtland is a professor and the managing director of the Center for Free Enterprise at West Virginia University. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Tulane University and his work has been published in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Journal of Environmental Philosophy, and Journal of Applied Philosophy among others.