David R. Harris — president of Union College in New York and an appointee in the administration of former President Barack Obama — stated in an Inside Higher Ed essay last week, "I oppose free speech on college campuses."
That statement — along with the title of his essay, "A Campus Is Not the Place for Free Speech" — is quite the attention grabber for those on both sides of the free speech debate raging at institutions of higher learning and around the country at the moment.
And indeed a further read of his piece shows Harris has more on his mind than his provocative statements indicate — but backlash against his essay accuses him of not fully communicating with readers and not completely spelling out his beliefs about free speech, particularly at his own private college.
What does the essay say?
First, Harris declared that he doesn't believe "college campuses should be safe havens from voices on the left and right that violate what I have learned and what I believe. My opposition is just as strong when it comes to free speech arguments in support of voices that affirm my beliefs."
More from his essay:
Free speech, in its purest form, is an exercise in what is achieved when a person yells a view and then leaves, after which someone with an opposing perspective does the same. The speakers do not grow as a result of the experience, and the audience has no opportunity to probe the opposing points of view. Such an exercise is guaranteed by the Constitution, and I wholeheartedly support the exercise of free speech in public spaces.
On campuses, however, we must strive for something more than free speech. Our mission requires that we seek what I refer to as constructive engagement. It is not enough for individuals to speak freely. We must also find myriad ways to put a range of views into conversation with one another. It is what we do in classrooms every day. It is what we do on debate teams. It is what happens across every campus, far more than critics appreciate. It is what happens in the lives of college students much more frequently than in the lives of most adults, in part because college campuses and social networks tend to be more diverse than "real world" neighborhoods and social clubs.
Harris went on to say that Union College has "launched an initiative to create the conditions for hearing and learning from diverse perspectives. One key element is an explicit and stated goal of understanding. Another is that speakers must take unscreened, sincere questions from the audience, and they are expected to respond respectfully. And finally, speakers must have evidence and reasoned arguments to support their views, given that both form the foundation upon which knowledge and wisdom rest."
And he added this crucial declaration: "This is not the place to bash those who think otherwise with literal or figurative personal attacks, to privilege heat and fury over light and insight."
Harris on Friday didn't immediately reply to TheBlaze's question regarding if Union allows free speech in its purest form as he describes ("when a person yells a view and then leaves, after which someone with an opposing perspective does the same").
Other readers seemed similarly perplexed.
'This essay seems incomplete and the title misleading'
One commenter posted a rebuttal to Harris' essay that's worth presenting its entirety. Dennis Nolan noted:
This essay seems incomplete and the title misleading. Of course respectful debate is the best form of free speech, and Union should encourage it. But there are many other sorts of free speech. The author's description of free speech ("Free speech, in its purest form, is an exercise in what. It is achieved when a person yells a view and then leaves, after which someone with an opposing perspective does the same") is disingenuous at best. The "purest form" of free speech is not alternating "yells," and I'm sure President Harris knows it.
More important is the question of what Union does or plans to do about speech that does not fit the respectful debate ideal. If it permits alternative speech, like one-sided editorials or speeches, non-respectful assertions, and yes, even "yelling a view," then President Harris's personal opposition to those forms it is mildly interesting but ultimately irrelevant. If Union prohibits those alternative forms of speech, then it is unreasonably restrictive. President Harris does not tell us which path Union takes. No student interested in real education should enroll in an institution that permits only respectful debate and forbids everything else.
President Harris's distinction between "public spaces" where he supports free speech and "campuses" where he does not is also misleading. Public college and university campuses are clearly "public spaces," as shown by the many court decisions striking down rules that try to limit free speech to tiny areas. Private schools like Union should strive to be equally open to speech in all its forms. By all means, encourage debate but don't ban or punish those who express themselves in other ways.
Others had issues with Harris' perspectives as well:
- "That has to be the most bizarre definition of free speech ever uttered. It is a simply a crazy straw man argument."
- "Civil rights laws apply to private institutions as well as public institutions (though in different ways). The good president doesn't seem to know that, or has forgotten."
- "To be so ignorant on the meaning of 'free speech' and reduce it to something akin to a shouting match between viewpoints is shocking."
- "Would the Union College president feel the same way if he were not allowed to read this essay on a college campus because its sentiments were opposed by a small number of students?"
- "Union '68. I've given to the annual fund all but three years since graduation. My father went to Union and he and my mother established a scholarship fund (to which I have also given). Union has seen the last of my dollars and support both annually and in my will."
Believe it or not, Harris responded to the "Union '68" commenter, saying: "In the spirit of constructive engagement, I'd welcome the opportunity to discuss why you are upset, and perhaps find common ground. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks."
Another commenter offered the following view supporting Harris:
I think we are talking here about college administrations allowing the "hecklers" veto' to silence legitimate debate. There are too many examples to ignore of politically motivated harassment and intimidation directed towards holders of mainstream opinions while on campuses. Perhaps Dr. Harris is not familiar with some recent surveys showing troubling trends. One such survey is from Brookings from September 2017. Sixty percent of students don't know if the First Amendment protects 'hate speech' (apparently 100% think there is such a thing); 51% think it is acceptable to disrupt or shout down a speaker so that listeners cannot hear; 19% think it is acceptable to use violence to achieve silencing. This debate is not about "yelling at each other" vs. Dr. Harris' reasoned debate. It's about whether administrations will allow some students or faculty to suppress others' speech or stand up for one of our civilization's core values.
But Will Creeley, senior vice president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told Campus Reform that "Harris' provocative framing makes for a click-friendly headline, and his piece probably did pretty well on social media" but it "relies on a cramped caricature of 'free speech' — people yelling at each other and then walking away."
Creeley added to the outlet that "in reality, the 'constructive engagement' that Harris prizes is most possible when expressive rights enjoy robust protection, and requiring all campus discussions to meet Harris' conception of classroom standards would shortchange students' ability to learn from each other in a wide variety of ways."
Here's a clip of Harris introducing himself prior to his Union College inauguration last year: