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POV: Let Haters Speak. Then Disagree with Them.

Universities must teach respect for free speech and inquiry

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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 canceling 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, then a senior editor at Breitbart News, 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. [Editor’s note: Yiannopoulos’ appearance was scheduled before he resigned from Breitbart February 22 after his earlier controversial remarks about pedophilia surfaced.] 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 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 his 1859 philosophical treatise 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 cocurricular 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 his 1869 essay 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.

Ann Cudd, dean of Arts & Sciences, can be reached at acudd@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

9 Comments

9 Comments on POV: Let Haters Speak. Then Disagree with Them.

  • Ana on 02.27.2017 at 5:21 am

    Couldn’t agree more. Sadly I feel that this is not a common feeling on campus. Although I disagree with 99% of what Milo Yiannopoulos preaches, I have to give it to him that he’s right on one thing-free speech. He said it best on Bill Maher, “if you don’t show up to a debate, you lose.”

  • LG on 02.27.2017 at 8:28 am

    If you looked into Milo Yiannopoulos’s past talks you would see that one could only expect hate speech at his UC Berkeley engagement. We have a moral obligation to protest hate speech; it is not free speech. Condemning Yiannopoulos only after his sympathies for pedophilia were unveiled was too little too late, your character has been revealed.

    The author of this poorly thought out article also said that they would have liked Yiannopoulos to speak at UC Berkeley, but when Yiannopoulos spoke at another university he attacked a transgendered student in the audience, destroying that person’s life on campus and encouraging hate against any transgendered person. Continuing with his speech at Berkeley would have given him the opportunity to do this again.

    You have something to learn from Luvvie: http://www.awesomelyluvvie. com/2017/02/milo-yiannopoulos-trash.html

    • Dave Foster on 03.13.2017 at 6:58 pm

      Freedom of speech is not to protect speech you like – it’s to protect speech you hate. One thing you can be certain of – someone out there hates your point of view – not matter what it is – and would like to silence you.

  • Emily on 02.27.2017 at 8:29 am

    Thanks for your article, Ann! I just wanted to point out a small error you may not have seen: While protesters who were unaffiliated with the the school were about of the riot, students of even some teachers of UC Berkeley were as well. It was originally several student groups from the university who called on the protests after failing to get Yiannoloulos’s original invitation revoked. Hope this helps!

  • Henri on 02.27.2017 at 9:29 am

    I agree with some of your assertions and the need for true dialogue; however, I disagree strongly with your defense of UC Berkeley and the false equivalency between sore spots from oppression and blind spots from privilege. Milo, for example, is the antithesis of dialog – he spouts rhetoric that is dangerous as many who hear him do not hear dissenters or consider perspectives of protesters. In a era of unthinkable hate crimes, giving a platform for this rhetoric, sanctioned by an institution, is unethical. I hope you reconsider your position on this. As for sore spots and blind spots – I agree in principle, and I do think that our sore spots can cause us to react when they are triggered in ways that shut down dialogue. However, the current discourses DO allow blind spots AND sore spots. Privilege induced blind spots cause the sufferer to believe themselves oppressed when they hit on sore spots of others and cause deep-seated reactions. We need nuance AND to find a way to stem the tide of hate. Silencing it does not work, but neither does giving it free range. In peace.

  • Jared on 02.27.2017 at 12:38 pm

    Great opinion piece Ana! As a liberal myself, I am ashamed at the current trend of the “liberal movement” protesting and employing the same sort of intimidation tactics that were used by more conservative factions in times past. The only reason some of the biases and prejudices that were seen only a few generations ago have abated to the extent they have was through the courage of the educational establishments to invite dialogue from parties that were definitely not mainstream or indeed popular at the time. If we choose to forever live in these so called “safe spaces” and not confront views that are different than our own then we are falling into the same trap as the people that we see as intolerant. Ridiculing and refusing to hear people present their world viewpoint based on their percieved “ignorance” or presumed “biases” is in itself ignorant and biased and the antithesis of what liberalism espouses. And as a reminder Henri, the world is immensely less violent/hateful and greatly more open than it has been any time prior in the human existence- I encourage you to consult your history books should you doubt this. Until fairly recent times genocide, cultural intolerance and blatant racism was the norm rather than the exception.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 02.27.2017 at 2:30 pm

    What’s odd here is that by prejudging conservatives expressing their views as haters – and then not actually using the term in the article??? – it’s not really dialogue. I mean, if you “then disagree with them,” you weren’t listening to begin with. This is not healing divisions, it’s just paying lip service to the idea of open exchange of ideas. Do we really want to start protests first, when a person visiting the University gives us a chance to hear that person out? And unfortunately by using terms like racist, sexist, and especially “homophobic,” Dean Cudd is blocking the sort of direct debate which she quotes Mill as being a benefit of free speech. It’s all “have you stopped beating your wife?” Before a conservative can express any opinion, she first needs to disprove the prejudicial assumptions of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and Islamaphobia, not to mention the recurring claim that any words spoken are simply cover for underlying fascist scheming. It may not be clear on the liberal side just how raw are such intimidation tactics are against those holding traditional views, especially on sexual morality. Beliefs considered right and healthy 50 years ago can barely be uttered because of the spectacle of conservatives suffering personal attacks, job firings, and worse. Is this what liberalism means today?

  • chris moffatt on 03.06.2017 at 10:24 am

    I find it depressing to see nowadays how many commenters all around the internet seem not to understand the first amendment. There is no moral responsibility to protest speech I don’t like as long as it isn’t directly provoking violence and insurrection. My opinions may be wrong and the speaker’s correct. I also find it curious that some persons may “know” what a speaker will say before she/he says it. Even more curious the determination beforehand that it will be “hate speech” and must therefore be protested and prevented. Such anti-social behaviour needs to be discouraged; if necessary by Universities separating identified ringleaders of campus violent protests permanently from the University. In my day you didn’t have to go to the extent of smashing windows and burning cars to get “sent down”. University administrations need to define and enforce codes of behaviour that apply to all students. But as long as students are seen as cashcows to be milked dry of their student loan money and then discarded nothing much will change no matter how many deans publicly wring their hands while privately condoning and extending the problem.

  • Bullard W on 03.06.2017 at 3:25 pm

    As a conservative slightly to the right of Attila the Hun I can say most conservatives I now consider Milo to be somewhat of a nutter – but guilty of Hate Speech? I don’t think so. The term Hate Speech seems most appropriate when it is self referential. It’s actual meaning, I think, is speech with which someone does not agree. Free Speech contains no guarantee of an audience. Don’t listen if you don’t like it, but rioting is never an appropriate response. Nor is car overturning, window breaking or BOOK BURNING.

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