The Cost of Free Speech on Campus
There is much to fear and loathe in the latest example of militant and violent campus intolerance. At Middlebury College in Vermont, dozens of furious students (and, likely, others from off campus) shouted down a campus talk by a visiting professor, crushed the subsequent attempt to livestream the lecture, and then hassled and physically harmed the host of the event, a female Middlebury professor.
It appears that those in charge tried to do their jobs in a careful and effective way, before, during, and after the event. Various Middlebury professors, administrators, and security personnel strove to strike the difficult balance between defending freedom of speech for the event participants and maintaining freedom of speech for protestors.
Alas, however, when people will not be reasoned with and resort instead to violence, persuasion must give way to redemptive coercion. And that’s what, so far, has been lacking at Middlebury, as it has been lacking so many other places as well.
If disgruntled students, professors, and other university citizens act in ways that directly prevent the university from fulfilling its mission, they must be called to account, instructed carefully in case they have misunderstood, and then prevented from subsequently impeding their fellows from pursuing that mission.
Central to the university’s mission is the fostering of free exchange of serious ideas. Those who interfere with such exchanges are literally acting against the university.
Professors who do so, therefore, must be disciplined and, finally, fired.
Students who do so, likewise, must be disciplined and, finally, expelled.
We Christians have a long history of having our speech repressed and, yes, of repressing the speech of others. But our Lord engaged in robust exchanges with people of all sorts, including even his sworn enemies. Likewise, the Apostle Paul enthusiastically argued in synagogues, marketplaces, and philosophical gatherings, often to his great personal cost.
The violent insistence on only one view in public space is inimical to Christian principles, as it is death to any sort of free society.
So why do enemies of free speech feel such freedom to kill it at our universities? Why aren’t students and professors afraid of being removed? They seem completely unperturbed, in fact, by thought of any serious repercussions.
Here’s the dirty little truth compelled by three decades of steady cutbacks in government funding for higher education: Universities can’t afford expulsions.
Yes, on this or that campus, the characteristic reluctance of Baby Boomers of coming down too hard on dissenters and thus fulfilling their ultimate dread of resembling their parents keeps many university authorities from commonsensical actions such as tossing out bad apples.
But faculty members at unionized campuses are hard (that is, expensive) to dismiss. Worse, however, is the case regarding students.
Professors nowadays have dinned into our ears the gospel of “retention,” of how costly it is for the university to recruit each student and then how difficult it is to replace him or her with transfer students. One must conclude that administrators so desperately want to avoid students leaving that they certainly will not compel them to do so.
What needs to happen, therefore, is for other students, alienated by the refusal to protect the sacredness of civil exchange at a university, to leave such badly run institutions, making it plain that they are leaving for saner shores.
Most students, of course, aren’t bothered enough by the occasional campus blow-up to undergo the considerable disruption of uprooting themselves from their campus homes. So they shrug and carry on with their studies, quite understandably.
Alas, then, if enough customers won’t complain to force management to change its policies, then government overseers, board members, and donors had better do so instead.
And they had also better be prepared to literally pay the cost of such necessary surgery on the faculty and student body.
Or they will get to pay the cost of the lawsuits once campus violence really gets serious, by which point any traditional sense of “university” will have vanished.