Disrupting Speech Is Not Respecting Academic Freedom

January 4, 2012

In “Why We Disrupt,” an opinion piece in this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, P. J. Rey, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland, tries to justify the Occupy movement’s disruption of speech by conservatives and other 1%ers on college campuses.  His argument fails in many sad ways, and it trods familiar, disappointing ground.  You can read the piece here, and it is worth reading if only to be reminded what clothing is worn by arguments against academic freedom.

Rey’s focus is on “free speech,” and he is largely (exclusively?) concerned with speech that is political.  He argues against conventional respect for free speech by asserting that “only the 1 percent ever find themselves at the podium,” and that “the opportunity to speak and to be heard is inextricable from issues of wealth and power.”  Thus, says Rey, “the primary purpose of Occupy’s use of the human microphone at public speaking events is not to disrupt, but to be heard. It is not an assault on free speech but a tactic for obtaining it.”

Rey never uses the term “academic freedom” and I wonder whether he has thought through the difference between “free speech” and academic freedom.  The latter is what colleges and universities must uphold, and all of us who are members of such academic communities share that responsibility.  Free speech is a right to be heard on all matters, including political and religious matters, free from interference by governments.  It is what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution proclaims.  Academic freedom is related but different in important ways.  Academic freedom is a right AND a responsibility pertaining to academic communities.  It protects speakers (and writers), faculty and students and visitors, from interference with their speech so long as they are conscientiously engaged in the pursuit of truth.  Colleges and universities seek to be special sanctuaries for allowing new and unusual ideas to be considered.

Some of the speech on colleges and universities will inevitably be “political speech.”  We can’t avoid political speech; indeed most speech has some tincture of the political about it.  But colleges and universities should rarely be trying to promote political speech; they have lost their way when they do.  Again, speech on college campuses should be associated with the central mission of institutions of higher education, to discover and disseminate truth.

Rey may well look askance at this.  His is a jaundiced view of the purposes of universities and their leaders.  “The real reason why universities break up these actions” (speech disruptions), he argues, “is because they want to preserve and protect the routine operation of the bureaucracy; it has little to do with freedom and is, instead, about rationalization (what sociologist Max Weber described as the tendency of Modern bureaucratic institutions to value efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control above all else).”  (Aside: why does he capitalize “Modern?”)  And he adds, “the primary stakes for universities are prestige and profit, not freedom and democracy.”  (That, by the way, is a cartoon image, not the statement of a sociologist deserving the professional respect he claims by so identifying himself.)

Yes, colleges and universities too often have their purposes subverted, both for profit and for political causes.  Yes, that subversion of purpose tends to be skewed toward some interests and not others.  Colleges and universities should be challenged when they are so subverted, but such a challenge should be directed at their leadership, not at speakers invited to campus.  (By all means, picket speakers you find objectionable; submit them to sharp questioning; hold counter events.)

Nevertheless, colleges and universities are precious institutions where where real debate is possible, where real truth-seeking can take place.  Rey’s argument would have us treat colleges and universities as no different from any of the rest of society.

I admire the Occupy movement when it stands up for the 99%.  I admire it when it calls attention to privilege and radical inequality.  I admire the willingness of those in the Occupy movement to engage in civil disobedience to call attention to theses issues.  But when their arguments turns to “anything goes,” as Rey’s does, they have lost their way.

Academic freedom is different from “free speech.”  “Academic freedom” is a special value of a special kind of institution.  If Rey (and others in the Occupy movement) want to be members of an academic community, they need to respect the professional responsibilities that make such institutions possible. Don’t tear down the foundations of an institution essential for democracy and freedom.

If you want to disrupt speech to make your point, do it off-campus, and be prepared to accept the legal consequences as the price of civil disobedience.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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