A Faculty Unites To Champion Free Speech On Campus

January 2016

Were John Stuart Mill alive, he would say that silencing the expression of an opinion is evil. “It is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it,” he wrote. “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

That tradition still has its defenders.

In the academy, they are worried about ongoing challenges to speech on campus. Many keep quiet. At American University, however, faculty leaders just took a stand. The faculty senate unanimously passed a resolution earlier this month reaffirming their commitment to free expression. Its language is refreshingly direct and unambiguous. “For hundreds of years, the pursuit of knowledge has been at the center of university life,” it states. “Unfettered discourse, no matter how controversial, inconvenient, or uncomfortable, is a condition necessary to that pursuit.”

The resolution inveighs against recent trends. “As limits, subtle or explicit, are increasingly placed on intellectual freedom in venues of public discourse, the academy is committed to the full expression of ideas,” it declares. “As laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn, or exclude specific content, the academy must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression.”

On those standards and principles, “American University will not compromise,” it vows.

The resolution adds, “American University is committed to protecting and championing the right to freely communicate ideas—without censorship—and to study material as it is written, produced, or stated, even material that some members of our community may find disturbing or that provokes uncomfortable feelings. This freedom is an integral part of learning... and an obligation from which we cannot shrink.”

So-called “trigger warnings,” which have evolved away from merely seeking to avert triggering episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder, are explicitly addressed:

Faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and materials that are part of their curricula. However, the Faculty Senate does not endorse offering “trigger warnings” or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to “opt out” of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries. Faculty should direct students who experience personal difficulties from

exposure to controversial issues to resources available at American University’s support- services.

That strikes the right balance.

Just as academic freedom should protect faculty members who wish to eschew “trigger warnings,” so too should it protect those who decide to offer some form of them.

On Sunday, Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, published a piece in the New York Times on why she uses some trigger warnings––I leave off the quotes here because she is arguably most interested in staving off actual episodes of PTSD. “Although I see a willingness to use trigger warnings as part of pedagogical best practices, I don’t believe their use should be mandatory,” she declared. “There is already too much threat to academic freedom at the moment because of top-down interference from overreaching administrators.”

As well, she wrote:

“Criticisms of trigger warnings are often based on the idea that college is a time for intellectual growth and emotional development. For this to happen, students must be challenged. And they need to learn to engage rationally with ideas, arguments and views they find difficult, upsetting or even repulsive.

“On this count,” she continued, “I agree with the critics, and it is in fact the main reason that I do issue warnings.” Whatever one thinks of her reasoning as it unfolds over the remainder of her op-ed, it suggests that even prominent advocates of trigger warnings can find a lot to like in the American University faculty resolution.

Perhaps similar resolutions could pass elsewhere.

That would send a powerful message to both the student activists pressuring faculty from below and to administrators usurping academic governance from above: Academic freedom and freedom of expression are non-negotiables on campus. Tenured professors who agree but haven’t spoken out are especially derelict in their duty, and should take this opportunity to associate themselves with their AU colleagues, who seem to have been influenced in part by last month’s Atlantic cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

Speaking up matters, for there is a bigger coalition behind academic freedom and freedom of expression than countervailing trends on campus would seem to suggest.

Where will these voices make themselves heard next?