I was once a censor. Years ago, I was Dean of the school of fine arts on a Canadian university campus. The school had a degree program in film production, a somewhat free-wheeling operation. One day a parent of a twelve-year old phoned me, to say she had found in her son’s room a script of a student film in which her boy had been invited to play a minor role. She was appalled by what she saw, and forwarded me a copy. The script, in addition to many problems, not the least of them the legality of involving a minor, was also viciously misogynistic. I spoke with the film professor, who had in fact seen the script and was willing to let it go ahead into production, although he admitted it was of quite low quality. In a program for which there had already been discussion of the poor environment for the minority of film production students who were women, I brought the production to a halt, and ordered that the student produce something more appropriate. In the end, the student, who was not entirely without talent, produced a film that had a satirical take on me. Which was fine; if you cannot handle satirical criticisms, university administration is not a wise career choice.
What to allow or not allow on campus is not an easy call. The borders are foggy and gray. I don’t find much value in slippery-slope arguments, whether ‘but if you don’t allow this, will you next ban that?’ or ‘but if you allow that, are you then going to allow this?’ One of the very first things novice skiers learn is how to stop themselves on a slippery slope, and I think we are all capable of that too. It’s also important to remember that all institutions have formal or informal guidelines on expression as a means of protecting the mission of the organization itself. Last week Senator Elizabeth Warren was prevented from speaking when her reading aloud a letter critical of a Cabinet nominee was ruled out of order. I’m not sure that was a wise call, but our chambers of democratic debate must retain some guidelines if they are to function. Parliamentary systems allow for many creative means of insulting members of the opposing party, but insinuating an opponent is dishonorable, for example using the word “liar”, is out of order. And a good thing too – rules of debate allow a space for substantive debate to occur. As Jacob Levy has pointed out, our university disciplines are in fact a means of limiting debate within certain bounds such that discussion and advancement of ideas might move forward (I highly recommend reading his talk).
So what can guide us on the 2017 campus? What speech is in bounds and what is out? Was my act as a censor wrong?
I don’t think it was. Students come to our campuses to learn, and that learning involves having preconceived ideas challenged and tested. If there is speech or expression that in no conceivable way advances that goal, and is in fact harmful to it, it’s not clear why it ought to be a part of university life. I censored a film because it was a male student having a bit of a lark with the department’s cameras while at the same time creating a hostile environment for women students to study the craft of filmmaking. It was not presenting “ideas”. It was simply designed to insult.
And similarly with the current controversies over outside speakers invited to campus. In last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Rafael Walker considers the case of Williams College disallowing speaker John Derbyshire:
A provocative student group wanted to bring the conservative writer John Derbyshire to campus, not because all its members supported his views but because at least some of them planned to refute those views. However, they should have taken a moment to anticipate the kind of press to which the event, as planned, would have inevitably given rise: “Williams to Host Notorious Racist” is not a headline that any college president wants to find himself having to explain to alumni.
Canceling the speech, however, was a missed teaching opportunity for the leaders at Williams. The students’ idealistic hearts were in the right place: They aimed to get all the ideas out in the open, in the hope that, in Darwinian fashion, only the fittest would survive. But their approach was way off. This was fundamentally a framing issue that faculty and administrators should have worked with students to overcome rather than dismissing the proposal out of hand.
No, it would not have done for a student group to bring a speaker of Derbyshire’s stature with the intent to engage him on their own. No matter how intelligent Williams’s student body is, this simply wouldn’t have been a fair fight. Surely a less objectionable alternative would have been to stage the event as a debate rather than a lecture; in so doing, the students might have brought in any number of pundits from the swelled ranks of the liberal intelligentsia to oppose Derbyshire’s message.
Derbyshire’s “ideas” are that black students are on average intellectually genetically inferior to white students. Here’s a flavor of what he has to say. What is there to debate here? He calls himself a racist, and it is on that basis that he was invited to campus (and let’s not say this is a banning of a “conservative” view. Conservatives are conservatives; racists are racists). What African-American student, at Williams to study Chemistry, ought to be in an environment where the campus sees fit to debate whether she is of inferior genetic provenance?
Students should be exposed to different ideas. The mainstream discipline of Economics might hold Post-Keynesian theory in low regard, but good for students to hear about it from someone who believes it. But that’s a debate about ideas, about what campuses are meant to be about. Speakers whose sole goal is to insult, and who are invited purely on that basis … what is the goal? What does that further? Would the legislators who want to force campuses to admit such speakers allow a free-for-all in their own legislative chambers? We know they don’t, and I don’t blame them.
I’ll close on a frustratingly vague note. These are judgment calls. Any clear line that’s drawn will immediately bring hard cases. Reasonable people will disagree. But some times, in order to pursue its educational mission, to be enjoyed by all students, there will be prohibitions. No campus has ever been “anything goes”, and for good reason.
Footnote: I’m going to make a point of making a statement that is always the case: I speak for myself here, not for the institution where I am employed.