I recently received a phone call from an outraged parent. Evidently his son’s instructor had excused students from class to attend the rally on Marsh Plaza on January 30 against President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration. This effectively canceled the class, as nearly all of the students chose to attend the rally. The parent was upset that, in cancelling class for what he took to be a partisan political rally, the instructor was “not doing his job”; moreover, his student was being cheated out of a class that should be focused only on the subject matter directly related to the class. As our conversation developed, it became clear that he was worried about his son having to confront strongly expressed political views contrary to his own.
On February 1, Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak to a meeting of the UC Berkeley College Republicans, but the event had to be stopped just before it was to take place due to violent protests by people unaffiliated with the university. The university administration had supported the event and had taken significant precautions to guard against violence, but the risks proved too severe; people were hurt and over $100,000 of property damage was done. President Trump tweeted his condemnation of the university that night along with a threat: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
In this political moment of stark, sometimes violent, partisan divisions, we as a university community must reaffirm our first principles and consider how to react to these and other threats to our fundamental ideals and mission.
Our mission at Boston University is to provide an outstanding education to our students as appropriate to their degree programs. Through our Bachelor of Arts degree programs, the College of Arts & Sciences is the embodiment of liberal education at BU. A liberal education fundamentally is about freedom; its goal is to empower students to become free, autonomous individuals by teaching them how to think critically about society, authority, and claims to knowledge and truth. We do this by providing students with broad exposure to different disciplines, which supply competing and complementary perspectives on the nature and value of evidence and methods of truth seeking, allowing us to judge competing claims and to learn the limits of knowledge. Our fundamental values in this endeavor are diversity of ideas and methods in search of the ultimate goals of knowledge, truth, and wisdom.
Given these goals, freedom of speech and academic freedom more generally are paramount ideals. John Stuart Mill vigorously defended freedom of thought and expression in On Liberty. He gave four arguments for extending freedom of speech to those whose opinions are contrary to one’s own or to the general opinion. First, the opinion may turn out to be true. Second, an opposing view may be false but contain a grain of truth, and that grain of truth is worth considering so that one may find the full truth. These two arguments underscore the importance of freedom of speech for finding truth, knowledge, and wisdom.
Mill’s further arguments support the idea that free speech is necessary for developing the critical thinking skills necessary for autonomy. His third argument is that there is always a value in discussing and defending one’s views against competing ones, lest one’s own views come to be held as mere prejudice rather than as rationally considered opinions. And fourth, by discussing opposing views one can strengthen one’s reason and justification for one’s own views. These arguments reflect the idea that rational argument rather than unconsidered prejudice is the hallmark of autonomy.
Mill’s arguments do not support an absolute right to say anything anywhere. They do not support breaching the privacy of employment, medical, or student performance information. They do not support speech that creates chaos, riots, immediate violence, or that conveys threats. But these arguments do support tolerating racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that falls short of such mayhem. They support permitting speech that is considered by some to be heretical or blasphemous, anti-American, or communist. They support allowing speech that is demonstrably false or hurtful.
A commitment to liberal education requires that we tolerate speech that falls into these latter categories–but we can and should also support speech that vigorously opposes it. We as a community support the principle of free speech when we invite speakers with diverse points of view and protect their right and abilities to speak and be heard. We also support free speech when we protect the right to nonviolently protest if such protest does not silence speakers. Our faculty and students should have the ability to invite speakers whose views they feel are valuable for the community to hear. Faculty need to have the ability to choose to teach their subjects as they judge best and, more generally, to teach students habits of critical thinking through curricular and co-curricular activities. And students need to have the support of the university to bring speakers whose views they are interested in hearing, regardless of how unpopular those speakers might be.
We must also recognize that our students have come to university in order to further their development as autonomous adults, and this requires special support as they develop their voices. If the goal of a liberal education is to empower our students to be free, autonomous individuals, then we must also recognize that there are psychological facts of human development that cannot be reduced to logical inferences from evidence. To put it succinctly: we as human beings have blind spots from privilege and sore spots from oppression, and both kinds of spots can conceal truth. Mill understood how oppression can work to stifle truth by silencing the oppressed through threats of violence and internalized oppression. In On the Subjection of Women, he explains why women of his time did not openly protest their oppression: “In the case of women, each individual of the subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined.” Particularly in the case of oppressive social structures, we should empower students who have experienced them to speak about their experiences, through individual testimony or collective protest, without fear of intimidation or disapprobation.
I disagreed with the parent whose son missed a class because his instructor thought that participating in protest was a valuable learning experience. I assume that the instructor thought that the protest was not a mere expression of partisan opinion, but that something more fundamental was at stake: the very openness of society that free speech protects and liberal education requires. I also support the UC Berkeley administration’s decision to defend the College Republicans’ invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos, a decidedly illiberal and intolerant speaker, even at great risk and cost, as well as its decision to shut down the event in the face of violence. No one there did wrong except the lawless outsiders who trashed the campus, and the demagogues who tried to exploit the episode to discredit the university. It’s a shame for liberal education that his speech did not come off as planned, not only so that his opinions could be heard, but also so that they could be discussed, countered, and protested.