Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Disruption in the Marketplace of Ideas

Sean Decatur
October 4, 2017

From Charlottesville to the NFL sidelines, from the headquarters of Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook to the Connecticut campus of ESPN, Americans have been engaged in extensive discussion of free speech, civil discourse and the tension between those two concepts. Last week, we brought that conversation to Kenyon College. Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy hosted an impressive lineup of scholars, thought leaders and policymakers on the topic “Free Speech, Civil Discourse.”

In the title of the symposium, the phrases “free speech” and “civil discourse” are connected by a comma, not a conjunction, creating ambiguity that cuts to the heart of the difficult and contentious issues under discussion: Are these two concepts in inherent opposition (free speech or civil discourse)? Are they brought together in natural union (free speech and civil discourse)? No, the comma serves as the dreaded “and/or,” suggesting the existence of tension that the symposium conversations explored and prodded. Should the companies controlling social media platforms have the power to regulate speech? Do they have responsibility for enforcing a set of shared norms on civil discourse? Is the behavior of our political leaders coarsening the tone of public discourse in our country?

These are big questions — some would say questions that go straight to the heart of the future of the First Amendment — and the participants at the conference took them on in a series of panels. Yet despite the larger cultural battles over free speech and civility, attention is drawn time and again to the happenings on a few college and university campuses. To see this effect, one need look no further than Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech at Georgetown Law School, when he called for a “renewed commitment” to free speech on campuses, in the wake of scattered protests that have led to the shutdown or cancellation of controversial speakers across the country and rising fears of collegiate speech codes enforcing a culture of political correctness.

College campuses long have been hotly contested grounds in the broader dispute on the state of civility and free speech in the U.S. Free exchange of ideas is central to the values of a liberal arts education: Colleges and universities should be places where ideas are contested and challenged, not suppressed or shut out. At Kenyon, our faculty has endorsed this concept with a resolution on the value and importance of free expression, emphasizing that we must be open to hearing ideas that are inconsistent with shared institutional values.

The concept that free speech and open discourse are central to learning is fairly simple. Things get much more complicated when the need for open discourse is coupled with the desire for civil discourse. The act of defining civility is inherently subjective and often dominated by those in positions of power, and the definition of civil discourse continually evolves. Martin Luther King, Jr., is held up today by conservatives and liberals alike as a paragon of civility (and typically he is offered by conservatives as a counterpoint to those whom they see as uncivil — leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example). Yet, in his era, King was described as a provocateur, a violator of social norms, an ungrateful and disrespectful radical. Lest we forget, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — one of the most important works defining the moral imperative of nonviolent resistance — was written in response to white clergy who saw themselves as allies in spirit, but found his tactics in Birmingham uncivil.

While colleges in the U.S. long have been held responsible for our learning environment, they also have long been charged with establishing and enforcing definitions of civility. To read more on this, I would recommend reading Andrew Delbanco’s “College: The Very Idea,” a wonderful book that looks at the history of Anglo-American colleges from Oxford to present day. The residential college model that arose at Oxford (and, in many ways, continues here at Kenyon) came from the notion that the college setting should model and teach character and “civility.” At Kenyon, the “Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities” written in the early 1960s (and only recently rewritten by our Campus Senate) opened with the statement that “The objectives of Kenyon College include the development of maturity in moral and social behavior as well as the cultivation of intellectual excellence … to leave the moral and social standards of college life entirely to the influence of student peer groups is to insure the danger that adult standards will be unrepresented.”

Critics such as Attorney General Sessions (and several of the panelists who participated in Kenyon’s conference) assert that the rise of an ethos of liberal political correctness on college campuses, combined with the growth of administrative bureaucracy, has resulted in attempts to regulate student behavior in ways that appear to stifle free speech and expression. These critics often point to an incident at Yale where guidance on Halloween costumes set off a nationally followed conversation on free speech and civil discourse and cemented the image that colleges and universities were sacrificing sacred commitments to free expression in order to protect fragile “snowflakes” from offense. Their conclusion: Colleges have succumbed to demands that students be protected, not challenged.

I find this assertion of the reign of “victim culture” on college campuses specious and void of any historical context. Colleges and universities have been charged from their very origins to advance civility, and this has meant regulating student behavior on campus. If anything, the approach taken earlier in history was far stricter than anything that 21st-century critics of higher education see as a product of “political correctness” and the bureaucratic sensitivity of academic administration. Again, Kenyon’s statement of student responsibilities from the 1960s reads, “Any behavior which seriously affects the academic performance of the student or of fellow students, which offends the sensibilities of others (whether students, faculty members or visitors) … will result in disciplinary action…vulgar behavior, obscene language or disorderly conduct are not tolerated.”

If elite, residential colleges always have had a portion of their missions devoted to modeling civil behavior and thereby enforcing rules to advance such ends, what has changed? Why has this become such a sensitive point for cultural critics of colleges and universities today? There are several factors (including, as one speaker at the conference pointed out, the legacy of the baby boom generation), but I’d like to highlight at least one: The demographics of elite, residential colleges has changed drastically in the last 50 years and, as a result, the definition of civility has begun to change. There are many, including myself, who see the act of whites dressing in blackface as a disrespectful act. Reminding students of the norms of civil, respectful behavior, including refraining from blackface, is in line with the actions of colleges historically. What has changed is not the expectation that colleges define norms for civility, but rather the definition of civility.

There are behaviors on college campuses in general, and at Kenyon in particular, that may have passed a standard for civility 50 years ago — when the institution was all-male and almost all-white — that would not be considered civil today. Some may call this political correctness run amok, but it is actually progress.

So how do colleges resolve the tension between their institutional charge to promote freedom of speech and expression on the one hand, and to establish a site of civil discourse on the other? There are two components to consider. One is that speech or expression may be permitted, but that does not mean that it comes without consequences. You may dress in blackface, yes — but, you also may be subject to broad public condemnation for your behavior. Freedom of speech is not freedom from rebuke. In fact, if one follows the “marketplace of ideas” concept of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the rebuke is essential, since it is in the public challenge and battle over speech that our cultural norms of civility get established.

The other component is that institutions can and must set ground rules to ensure that free speech occurs within some bounds of acceptable civil discourse. Do you have the right to protest on campus? Yes, but the institution has the right to set the rules to make sure that all voices can be heard.

The current political climate dictates that the tension between free speech and civil discourse will continue in national conversation, and undoubtedly college campuses will continue to be flash points in these discussions. If we think of society as a marketplace of ideas, college campuses are the sites of market disruption — where new ideas challenge (and at times overthrow) old ones, new paradigms get established, and the battles over defining civility get waged. Let’s be unafraid to exchange ideas freely on campus. But when speech or actions disrupt accepted notions of civility, let’s also be unafraid to call attention to that with clear rebuke or rejection. This tension between civility and free speech will lead the way to progress.