Freedom of Speech Is Not Enough
Colleges should also teach students how to debate respectfully.
By Zachary Wood
North Carolina last week became the latest state to enact a law protecting free speech on college campuses. The Restore Campus Free Speech Act requires schools to discipline students and faculty who substantially disrupt or interfere “with the protected free expression rights of others.”
Such legislation, sensibly enforced, should bolster efforts to increase viewpoint diversity and send a clear message that heckler’s vetoes will not be condoned. But leaders in higher education need to do more than protect free speech. Their greater challenge is to teach students how to discuss controversial topics thoughtfully and see the value of understanding those with whom they disagree.
The need for such understanding became clear to me while serving as president of Uncomfortable Learning, a club at Williams College that tries to broaden the range of dialogue on campus by hosting controversial speakers. After I invited conservative commentator John Derbyshire in 2016 to speak about race and national identity, one student angrily told me that if the speech wasn’t canceled, Mr. Derbyshire wouldn’t make it through the door in one piece.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You can’t be serious.”
The student paused, leaned over the table and looked me in the eye: “Whatever it takes, he will not make it through that door.”
I had received criticism before and had my character attacked, but a face-to-face physical threat was something new. Two days later, the college president Adam Falk, banned Mr. Derbyshire from campus.
I’ve found that some activists are likelier to make an effort to understand opposing viewpoints, and even reconsider their own positions, when professors set an example and encourage students to listen actively and challenge each other. My freshman year I studied Booker T. Washington’s 1901 memoir, “Up from Slavery,” as part of a course in African-American literature. The professor opened the discussion by noting Washington is often criticized for admonishing African-Americans to help themselves by focusing first on industrial labor as opposed to classical education.
The professor urged us to reconsider that view. He suggested Washington was more complicated, interesting, even compelling than many of his critics allow. He directed our attention to Washington’s letters, which offer insight into his ideas about individual responsibility, industrial education and self-help. To my surprise, several students who advocated safe spaces made comments that reflected some appreciation of Washington’s approach to ameliorating the effects of racial subjugation.
Another useful approach may be for educators and administrators to lead the way in discussing campus issues in ways that represent the concerns of the entire student body. Rather than characterize a problematic protest as an example of either politically correct lunacy or entirely legitimate grievance, focus on the tension between expression and inclusion, respectfully acknowledging both points of view.
While free-speech legislation serves a critical purpose, punishment for disruptive protest shouldn’t overshadow the common aim of enhancing the state of intellectual discourse on campus.
Mr. Wood will be a senior at Williams in the fall and a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal where this was published.