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Various Thoughts on Campus Free Speech

Summary:
Current Events In no particular order or organization: 1. John Stuart Mill had a liberty principle, not a harm principle. Read Jacobson’s work on this. Mill thought you could have the right to free speech even when such speech harmed others. 2. Any theory of campus free speech better take political economy seriously. It’s one thing to specify a set of rules or conditions under which speech should be allowed or prohibited. But there’s little reason to suppose that campus administrators, faculty, or students will be any good at identifying when those conditions obtain, or that they will act in good faith. Most of these people are biased hooligans, and some of them are malicious. Many of them

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Current Events

In no particular order or organization:

1. John Stuart Mill had a liberty principle, not a harm principle. Read Jacobson’s work on this. Mill thought you could have the right to free speech even when such speech harmed others.

2. Any theory of campus free speech better take political economy seriously. It’s one thing to specify a set of rules or conditions under which speech should be allowed or prohibited. But there’s little reason to suppose that campus administrators, faculty, or students will be any good at identifying when those conditions obtain, or that they will act in good faith. Most of these people are biased hooligans, and some of them are malicious. Many of them think they’re engaging in war. If you tell people “Under special circumstances, it may be right to prohibit a speaker or shout him down,” then people, being people, will believe or claim that these special circumstances just so happen to obtain whenever they dislike or disagree with the speaker. As a matter of fact, censorship will always be an ugly political battle.

3. That was partly Mill’s point: We better have rules that err on side of freedom, because real people will always err on the side of censorship.

4. As Phil Magness notes,  campus movements to shout down speakers and control faculty speech are being led by MLA-departments. These just happen to be the departments with the most activism and the lowest quality “research”; they’re full of poststructuralists, ideologues, and people who do sloppy work that would never cut it in economics or political science. The faculty least qualified to have an opinion on politics are the ones with the loudest opinions.

5. If you want to convince taxpayers to defund education, keep it up.

6. As Diana Mutz shows, people who can explain the other side tend not to be activists. The people who are most active in politics cannot explain the other side adequately.   That should make you worry.

7. Many faculty say things like, “It’s okay to exclude certain points of view, because we know they’re wrong.” But it just so happens that the people who say things like are almost always doing really shoddy work themselves.

8. I don’t think this is a majority oppressing the minority. Rather, it looks like a minority oppresses a smaller minority while the majority sit in silence.

9. I can’t think of any cases of leftists speakers being shouted down or attacked. It’s true that conservative state legislators often try to control campus speech. But on campus, it’s usually the leftists attacking the few right-wingers.

10. In my PPE course, I regularly teach fascist thought. I have students read “the Doctrine of Fascism” and some of the most racist parts of Mein Kampf. They routinely report learning a great deal from it; in particular, many are surprised and frightened to discover that they accept Hitler’s premises in his argument for why Germany has the permission right to invade neighboring lands.

11. Some people say we can’t “platform” ideas that could be used for evil. I look forward to seeing those same people demand we shut down all Marxist talks and fire all the Marxist scholars, since Marxist ideas led to 100 million or more democides in the 20th century. Note that pretty much anything can be twisted in service of evil. Nietzsche predicted the rise of something like fascism, and he pre-emotively complained about how awful fascism would be; nevertheless, some fascists twisted his ideas to justify their cause. So you can criticize X and still have your ideas used to promote X.

12. A more simple way of putting 11: We don’t want to give hecklers a veto.

13. “We can’t question or debate X,” where X is some sacred value. In the middle ages, the Church used this argument to burn heretics. Today, the campus left uses this to justify beating up conservatives.

14. Questioning the values everyone takes for granted is part of our job description. For instance, take the question, “What makes something a moral patient that has rights?” Philosophers are supposed to ask that question and explore different answers. But inevitably that will infuriate certain people.

15. “Talking about X hurts my feelings and makes me feel unsafe!” Be careful making that argument. It can and will be used to silence you in the future.

16. In Fairfax, there’s a Christian bookstore. They don’t sell atheist or pro-Islam books or homosexual erotica. That’s fine. Not every bookstore needs to be like Amazon, which has committed itself to selling anything legal to sell. Similarly, if a university opens up with an explicit ideological or religious identity, that’s probably fine too. (It would suck if all or most universities are like that, but have a few here and there is fine.) However, once a college or university publicly commits itself to being a center of open and free inquiry in pursuit of truth, it acquires a duty of integrity to stick to that commitment.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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