On Maintaining a Respectful, Inclusive Academic Conversation

Posted on: September 3, 2017 Topics: dean's note, first amendment, US Constitution

thisweek365-deans-noteBefore beginning today’s note, a word about recent events. Once again, a large, unprecedented storm system has exposed the limits of our capacity to absorb the shock of natural disasters in the US. The destruction of Hurricane Harvey was compounded by factors like global climate change, our country’s vulnerable infrastructure, and, centrally, the conditions of poverty and marginalization that exacerbate the effects of hurricanes and floods. It falls within the remit of public health to address both the causes and the long-term mental and physical health consequences of these events. While we cannot stop disasters like Harvey from happening, we can invest in a more resilient society, taking special care to support the health needs of marginalized groups who are most at risk when the worst occurs.

On to today’s note.

In a recent Dean’s Note, I discussed how schools and universities can elevate the public debate by engaging with complex, competing ideas. That note did not, however, touch on one particular challenge to our engagement with a full range of ideas; the limits to the academic conversation that schools must occasionally impose. Recognizing that our capacity to participate in an exchange of ideas is at the core of what we do as a school, the challenge becomes: What are the limits—if any—to this exchange? This issue has become especially pressing in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, which began on an academic campus, as well as in the broader context of the rise of hate speech in the US and the troubling links between hate speech and the threat of violence. Consideration of this issue touches on free speech, a core tenet of US freedoms, a right unequivocally stated in our Constitution, and one of the main principles of academic life. And yet, in recent years, we have seen a series of high-profile cases where the presence, or, sometimes, the absence, or “non-platforming,” of speakers on university campuses have led to anger and disruption. The objection to such speakers often rests on the accusation that they use their speech to foment hate. But in many respects, it is exactly unpleasant speech that the First Amendment aims to protect. This raises difficult questions. When is it acceptable to curate the conversation in the academic context? How might such limits be imposed at schools and universities in a way that respects the guarantees of the First Amendment and the freedom of expression that is so central to our work? I offer here some personal reflections, to articulate my evolving thinking on the issue, and to provoke reaction that can sharpen my ideas.

It seems to me that to answer questions of speech, it is necessary to ask another question: just how “free” is speech in our context to begin with? It strikes me that speech is often regularly curtailed in two, frequently unconscious, ways: through self-editing, and, in an academic context, through our curation of the ideas and opinions we engage with on our campus. It is not difficult to see how a habit of self-censorship can arise, where we limit ideas in form as well as in content. Often, this is motivated by decorum—we, appropriately, do not say everything that comes into our minds so that we might fit in, or simply avoid rudeness. There is also the question of consequences. In this age of social media, a statement that is construed as offensive can result in near-instant mass opprobrium. This, too, can lead to self-imposed limits on speech—we speak carefully because we fear where a misstep might take us. In the academy, unfettered speech is complicated by editorial necessity. For schools to work, faculty and staff must design curricula, assign readings, create programs of events, and invite speakers. This means making choices. We choose to whom we give a platform, just as we choose which books we assign and which discussions we engage in. When we decide to assign a particular book, or invite a particular speaker, we are implicitly choosing not to engage with an alternative perspective we might otherwise have called upon. There is no avoiding these decisions; our task then becomes making sure, when we decide how we will apply the principle of free expression at our school, that our curation of speech is guided by the right motives.

To ensure that we maximize latitude of expression while nurturing a respectful, constructive debate, I see three circumstances where speech may appropriately be edited in an academic context.

First, we have no obligation to provide a platform to speech that does not open itself to rejoinders by other speech. The chance to rebut arguments with which we disagree is an example of how free speech can check itself, with one person’s speech curbing or contextualizing the excesses of another. In his consideration of free speech and political extremism, Carl Cohen writes that one of the reasons that falsely shouting “fire” in a theater disqualifies a speaker from protection—per the famous maxim of Oliver Wendell Holmes—is that it “permits no discussion” and gives “no opportunity for reasoned reply.” Schools can and should provide such an opportunity. However, when speech becomes inimical to reply—through name-calling, for example—it should not be tolerated. Our current politics, and the degree to which it has lent itself to name-calling in recent years, provides ample evidence of how such speech can distort the public debate.

Second, we can curtail speech that, implicitly or explicitly, endorses or incites violence. The unacceptability of violence is, I think, self-evident, not just for its capacity to cause physical harm, but for its chilling effect on other speech. Indeed, violence represents a failure of speech; as Hannah Arendt wrote, “Violence begins where speech ends.” In this sense, it is a negation of our deepest values as a school, of our aim “to create a respectful, collaborative, diverse, and inclusive community.” Violence tears at the fabric of inclusivity, and puts collaboration and respect out of reach. Those who promote violence have nothing to offer the public debate, and should not be welcome at academic institutions.

Third, and this is perhaps hardest to grapple with, academic speech can be limited when it traffics in well-established falsehoods. It is important to make a distinction here between the promotion of willfully misleading statements and ideas that are simply tentative or not yet fully formed. Giving a hearing to the latter is not only acceptable, it is core to our project as scholars, constituting the beginning of all scientific inquiry. The former, however, serves no purpose, other than to distort good-faith efforts to find and convey the truth. For this reason, it may have no place on campus. This distinction is illustrated by the fight over the teaching of creationism versus evolution in public schools. Creationists have long maintained that their view should receive “equal time” alongside evolution. Yet evolution has been borne out by generations of scientific analysis, whereas creationism has no scientific basis. For this reason, the two positions are not equivalent, nor are schools expected to treat them as if they are. This is not because creationism is merely controversial, it is because there is broad agreement that creationism is incorrect. The distinction is an important one—in curating speech, we must make sure that we are not unduly censoring controversial ideas, but are, instead, exercising our prerogative to be careful in granting a platform to ideas that have been shown false by scientific consensus. I recognize that this is a difficult line to draw; ideas that today we think are wrong may turn out to be right tomorrow, and I have written previously about the need for humility about what we think we know. I also note that while here I am drawing, in some ways, black/white distinctions—i.e., asking whether we allow ideas to be expressed within a school or not—there are many shades of gray where ideas that are controversial, likely wrong, still deserve a hearing. In these cases, we can explicitly frame such ideas when they are on campus, either editorially in their presentation, or via the format of the presentation (e.g. a discussion or debate). This could allow us to provide a forum for controversial notions, while withholding the school’s implicit endorsement—which could otherwise be implied by our providing a platform for their presentation. In some ways, this particular category deserves much more exploration, but I label it in summary as one of three reasons that seem to me important factors in etching the scope of the academic conversation.

Schools and universities derive value from their ability to engage with complex, competing ideas, even—especially—during periods when this engagement is rarely reflected in the national debate. Any limit on the academic conversation is meant to ensure the quality of this engagement. When speech is used to silence other speech, incite violence, or promote falsehoods, it is far from the free and fair exchange of ideas that we aspire to. This is why we work to remain responsible curators of the public health conversation as it unfolds on our campus, taking care that the voices we invite to our school are not hateful or disingenuous, even as we maintain a willingness to host guests with challenging or controversial views. We also continue to provide opportunities for our community to make a rebuttal to the perspectives we host, and maintain a zero-tolerance policy for the kind of speech that moves beyond the realm of speech and into that of violence. We impose these limits in the hope of building a world where such limits are no longer necessary, where hate does not proliferate, arguments are presented in good faith, and the academic conversation serves to uplift, not undermine, the free exchange of ideas.

I hope everyone has a terrific week. Until next week.

Warm regards,


Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor
Boston University School of Public Health
Twitter: @sandrogalea

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Eric DelGizzo for his contributions to this Dean’s Note, and to Steven Barrett for spirited conversations that shaped many of the ideas discussed here, even as he disagrees with some of them.

Previous Dean’s Notes are archived at: http://www.bu.edu/sph/tag/deans-note/

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