How to Curtail Free Speech Under the Guise of Defending It

Paul Apostolidis, Shampa Biswas, Julie Charlip, Andrea Dobson, Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, Leena Knight, Thomas Knight, Bruce Magnusson, Gaurav Majumdar, Matthew Reynolds, Elyse Semerdjian, Jonathan Walters

In a forceful display of coordinated institutional authority, the November 16, 2017, issue of The Wire included an op-ed essay co-written by Whitman’s Chair of the Faculty, the Vice President for Enrollment and Communications, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the Students, and the Provost and Dean of the Faculty.

In response to recent controversial incidents at colleges and universities throughout the United States, the authors assert, “some on Whitman’s campus are asking about our ‘free speech code.’” Who exactly is issuing this call is left unspecified and no information is furnished about any specific proposals that have been advanced. Apparently these details are of no consequence, however, for the larger issue has already been resolved: “[W]e do not have, and do not plan to create a ‘free speech code.’”

As members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), we applaud the co-authors’ opposition to adoption of a code regulating speech at Whitman. For more than a quarter century, the AAUP has argued against such policies on the ground that “free speech is not simply an aspect of the educational enterprise to be weighed against other desirable ends. It is the very precondition of the academic enterprise itself.”

We are deeply troubled, though, by the authors’ contravention of the commitment to free speech they claim to uphold. This inconsistency is most obvious in the essay’s declaration that the question of whether or not we should adopt a speech code has already been decided by administrative fiat.

Again, we do not disagree with the substantive position advanced in this essay. But we can readily imagine persons of good faith articulating cogent arguments in favor of such a policy. Indeed, on many campuses, students of color and members of other disenfranchised groups have done exactly that.

At Whitman, however, those who might wish to initiate a campus-wide discussion about this issue have been told to save their breath. By rendering this debate pointless, publication of this essay by persons in positions of considerable institutional clout has effectively short-circuited advancement of the college’s educational mission.

The value of free speech is subverted in yet another way when the authors state that, in lieu of fashioning a new policy, they “decided to create common ground by articulating previously-implicit values around free speech that we believe are fundamental to Whitman.” On this account, it would appear that everyone at Whitman already shares certain core beliefs about free speech, and the authors of this essay are merely giving expression to this established consensus.

This self-representation obfuscates the fact that Whitman is a collectivity of individuals from diverse backgrounds who see the world from sometimes overlapping but often divergent perspectives. As a community, we have not gathered together in order to advance, debate, and come to agreement (or not) about our convictions regarding free speech and its appropriate parameters.

Instead, what we purportedly believe has now been revealed to us by those who, near the summit of the college’s governance structure, assure us that they are only giving voice to what we already tacitly endorsed. Here, rather than calling us to participate in the messy and frequently contentious practice of free speech, the authors’ sleight of hand renders such engagement unnecessary.

What, then, are the substantive beliefs about free speech that we ostensibly share? To answer this question is to identify the most disingenuous way this essay diminishes free speech under the guise of defending it. According to its authors, “the four principles that we believe already underlie Whitman’s values about speech” are those proclaimed by President Murray at this past fall’s convocation.

Because they are readily available, we need not reproduce those principles here. We do, however, want to suggest that at least certain of these precepts appear to privilege particular forms of speech and so to disqualify speech that does not conform to their undefended but very real norms.

At first blush, it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to President Murray’s call for “intellectually responsible speech,” which, we are told, requires that assertions “be supported with evidence, and other speakers’ evidence needs to be considered.” What this exhortation obscures, however, is the fact that the most heated controversies often turn not on the question of who advances the most persuasive evidence, but on the far more fundamental question of what persons are willing to accept as evidence in any given dispute.

For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, to many, the Biblical injunction that wives submit to their husbands unequivocally demonstrated the fallacy of the women’s suffrage movement. To challenge evidence that appeared incontestable to patriarchs, early feminists often found it necessary to speak loudly, passionately, and stridently. And, when they did so, their speech was often suppressed on college campuses and elsewhere because their uncompromising insistence on women’s equality was deemed “shrill,” “offensive,” and, indeed, “irrational” in the sense that no amount of evidence could possibly sustain the truth of this proposition.

To appreciate this example’s contemporary relevance, consider those who discredit the Black Lives Matter movement by claiming that young African-American men who fear stops by white police officers are “suspicious” or even “paranoid.” To undermine these activists by affirming that their apprehension is unsupported by the facts, as many have, is to fail to acknowledge that often what we “see” and hence what we are willing to recognize as evidence is itself irreducibly tainted by the insidious workings of racism.

Insofar as the principles announced by President Murray and repeated in the November 16 op-ed essay have been enunciated for us rather than emerging from engaged deliberation among students, staff, faculty, senior administrators and governing board members, consideration of their contestable character has been chilled. And insofar as these principles presuppose substantive norms of appropriate speech, however ironically, the authors of this essay advance something not unlike a speech code.

The educational mission of Whitman College is not well-served by shielding us from opinions that some may find distasteful, disagreeable, or even distressing. True, we all bear responsibility for creating and sustaining an ethos of mutual respect. But achievement of that ethos neither demands nor dictates adherence to amorphous standards of academic correctness or, for that matter, civility. Again, we concur: Whitman does not require a “free speech code.” What we do now urgently need is a collectively generated and genuine affirmation of our principled commitment to robust free speech.

Paul Apostolidis

Shampa Biswas

Julie Charlip

Andrea Dobson

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn

Leena Knight

Thomas Knight

Bruce Magnusson

Gaurav Majumdar

Matthew Reynolds

Elyse Semerdjian

Jonathan Walters