Safe spaces and controversial speakers

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Academic freedom requires that we get to create many different, discrete safe spaces. But you can’t claim your safe space and deny others theirs. And no one can annex the entire university as their intellectual property.

I’m afraid there is confusion about “speech” and its place in academics. This confusion radiated brightly from the March 22 Chronicle editorial, “Grading the Bell Curve,” which asserted: “Bringing a figure that has been documented as a white nationalist to Duke so that he can speak in a closed, ticketed event is not in line with the principles of free speech.”

Dr. Murray is a “who,” not a “that.” And the “documentation” is an injudicious claim on an advocacy web site with no academic credentials. Still, let us put this to the side and address the core assertion. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains 5 freedoms: speech, press, religion, association, and petition. These are not lexically ordered, but are all fundamental. In particular, the right to freedom of association implies the ability to meet in groups, even if they are “closed and ticketed.”

More importantly, the main value at stake is not “freedom of speech.” The 1st Amendment says “Congress shall make no law....” The Duke administration is not Congress; private universities have to satisfy their own missions, which actually have little to do with freedom of speech. Our core value is academic freedom. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are related, distantly. But they have different origins, different purposes, and different implications.

Freedom of speech would allow someone to ghostwrite a book for pay, and then have it published under someone else’s name. Academic freedom would come down hard on any student (or professor!) who did that. The philosopher Jacob Levy of McGill University recently wrote about the importance of this distinction, saying, “Universities as a complex association are deeply linked to their enterprise. Universities are not purposeless civil associations, they are devoted to structured, learning, research and inquiry of particular kinds, organized around serious intellectual communities to create questions that channel debate in productive ways, and then have moments of debate across.”

The point is that we must somehow balance the debate within groups that associate in productive ways, and then have moments of debate across. Any constituted student or faculty group has, and in fact academic freedom implies it must have, the effective ability to bring in a speaker of its choice, with some expectation of university support. This includes (reasonable) control over security and the audience.

Most importantly, no group or individual can annex the entire university as a private safe space, declaring that space off limits to some point of view. Everything is up for grabs, nothing is sacrosanct. So, if Murray had been invited as a graduation speaker, that would imply an endorsement by the entire community. Protests (if students or faculty felt moved to do so) would be well within the boundaries of academic freedom.

But he was not. He was invited by a student group that elected to have its audience go through a process of obtaining a ticket. The talk was announced on several public listservs, and tickets were publicly available. A judgment was made about the size of the likely audience, and a room was selected that fit that audience. A larger room might have been selected, of course. But for the editorial board to invoke some fabricated ex post right of universal access is to transgress, in a way that is dangerous and (frankly) remarkably misinformed about the boundaries of academic freedom. No one group can expropriate the entire university as its safe space. If you are upset because you were denied your “right” to prevent other people from hearing a speaker they invited, you need to realize that academic freedom never gave you such a right in the first place.

A “safe space” is a choice, implied by academic freedom, to nurture association and learning. The same “right” of students to have ideologically segregated safe spaces in the Sanford Institute is the right to choose your own group, to invite speakers and to choose an audience focused on a narrow research or policy question.

Academic freedom encompasses both (1) the right to constitute a narrowly focused group and (2) the right to challenge—in your own groups—any conclusion that is part of the general orthodoxy. Balancing the advancing of a viewpoint with subjecting that viewpoint to strong challenge is not a contradiction, but is the academic atmosphere required to conduct research and foster learning.

Dr. Michael Munger is a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of undergraduate studies of the department of political science.


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