Andrew Potter: Free speech and academic freedom aren’t the same thing
Politicians who don’t understand that are only making things worse.
By: Andrew Potter
We are once again in the midst of a very public and polarized debate over free speech on university campuses. The Israel-Hamas war is the main cause of the current flare-up, but the fire itself has been smouldering away for years now. It doesn’t help matters that very few of the people doing the debating actually understand the way free speech, as it is commonly understood, is not really a primary value of universities at all.
This is most obvious in the periodic interventions of conservative politicians, who vow to enforce free speech codes on campuses. Back when he was leader of the CPC, Andrew Scheer made a campaign pledge to take away federal funding from any university that failed to “foster a culture of free speech and inquiry on campus.” The current leader of the party, Pierre Poilievre, has made a similar pledge, threatening to withhold federal grants from Canadian universities if they don’t protect academic freedom and free speech from what he calls “campus gatekeepers.”
The problem is, the university is not designed to be a zone for untrammeled (or even largely unrestricted) freedom of expression, and it couldn’t possibly function properly if that’s what it were to become.
In a lengthy article published in the Globe and Mail last weekend, the McGill political scientist Jacob Levy explores at considerable length the current situation on (mostly American) university campuses, its relation to the Israel-Hamas conflict, and how universities have brought a lot of their current woes upon themselves. It is an important piece, and everyone who has an opinion on these issues should read it.
But equally important for our purposes here is a published lecture Levy gave way back in 2016 on the topic of free speech in a university setting, where he distinguishes between two types of associations, which he calls “enterprise” and “civic.” An enterprise association is one that is created for a specific purpose, like a book club, a church, a Dungeons & Dragons guild, a cub scout troop, and so on. These groups are all oriented towards a particular “vision of the good,” narrowly understood. People join a chess club to learn about and play chess, and people form a stargazing society to gaze at stars. Anyone who isn’t interested in these pursuits needs to find some place else to go hang out, lest they spoil it for everyone else.
In contrast, a civic association is one that has no intrinsic purposes; it merely sets the rules and parameters that enable people to pursue their various private or collective goals. A liberal society is of course the classic example, it is one giant civic association that is neutral with respect to conceptions of the good life. It just says to citizens, look, here are the rules of the game that govern how you interact with one another, and if you want to set up your own enterprise associations, here is how you go about doing that as well.
So the question is, what sort of association is a university? The answer of course is, “it’s complicated.”
In one sense, a university looks a lot like a big civic association, one that has no substantial purposes of its own. A university is neutral with respect to the ideas or data or results that come out of the research activities of its members, it does not prescribe the content of courses taught by those members, and so on. Outside of topics that bear directly on its institutional mission or interests (such as, say, provincial tuition policy) it holds no views of its own. What the university does is set the terms for the research and teaching activities of its faculty, and tells them how they can create a new class, or program, or even a new research centre or institute if they would like to do so.
But a university does this because it is, at the same time, a sort of meta-enterprise association: it allows all of this activity because it is committed to an overall purpose, which is the organized and structured research, teaching and accumulation of knowledge. As Levy puts it, the term we use for the norms that govern how all of this proceeds is “academic freedom.”
But what this academic freedom is most assuredly not equivalent to is what is commonly understood as “free speech.” In fact, academic freedom is in many ways about the freedom to restrict speech; to limit what is said and done in the classroom or in the research lab. It is the freedom to debate, but also to constrain it, in the name of the freedom of directed and focused inquiry. And the places where this happens — the classrooms, the departments, the faculties — Levy says (with enormous cheek) we might as well call these “safe spaces.”
These safe spaces are necessary for a number of reasons. First, because academic inquiry is hard, and it needs places where it can be pursued relatively free of distractions. Second, constantly being challenged or criticized or provoked can be exhausting, and scholars (especially nascent scholars, students just setting out on an intellectual adventure) need places where they can recharge or just be alone with their thoughts. But more than anything, they are necessary because intellectual inquiry is risky. It can be dangerous, offensive, frightening, morally fraught.
This is why we need to be wary of people, some of whom are well-intentioned, who want to see university campuses turned into free speech free-fire zones, like a meatspace instantiation of Twitter (sorry, X). This would be a disaster. It would turn campuses into places where there is no rest, no peace, no room for careful, structured thought or peaceful recharging. It would be a place where you would be constantly challenged and interrupted and forced to defend principles or beliefs or assumptions that are the foundations of effective academic work, but aren’t themselves the academic work. On this view, bringing the values of free speech into the academic setting would be tiring and counterproductive, but also largely at odds with the actual mission of the university.
Yet there are a number of ways in which this tidy little conception of the university as a cloistered sanctuary of academic safe spaces gets a little messy.
One of the things we tell new students is that it isn’t enough to just come to university to study and go to class. “Get involved,” we tell them. Run for student government or join a theatre club or write for the student newspaper or join the campus Conservatives or campus Communists or whatever other enterprise association strikes your fancy.
These associations (or simply, campus clubs) can be great fun, and for many students it is what they remember most of their time at school. But these are also the Trojan horses that sneak the free-speech debate into the university safe-space zones. Student theatre groups can stage plays that dramatize the assassination of the prime minister. The student newspaper can assert a blanket privilege to publish what it likes, under the guise of editorial freedom and journalistic independence. The campus political parties can claim a right to hold meetings, invite speakers, and openly recruit on campus. Any and all of these activities can, and frequently do, disrupt the safe-space bubble in which academic learning happens, not as deformations of the general university experience, but as fulfilments of it.
And so universities can easily find themselves caught between two competing conceptions of their mission: First, the university as an enterprise association of intellectual safe spaces where students and professors can work, learn, debate, and recharge, and second, a place where the university’s character as a civic association permits activities and associations that invite free speech norms inside the walls of the academic citadel.
There is nothing necessarily incompatible in these two competing conceptions of university life. After all, one of the great things about a decent-sized university is that the intellectual separations are mirrored by its architecture: the dorms are away from the classrooms and the lecture halls, and the student clubs have offices that are in a separate building altogether. Peaceful co-existence through architecture has served many universities very well for decades.
And that’s why it doesn’t have to be a problem if the campus Conservatives invite, say, Tucker Carlson to give a talk: no one makes you go. Similarly, no one makes you read the campus newspaper, and if one campus group really gets you riled up, well you can always try to start your own. Many of the real fights tend to happen because of bad faith, where one side or the other is not content to allow certain enterprises to exercise their associative rights. They object in principle to a certain viewpoint being expressed on “their” campus, and try to prevent it from occurring.
But there is a third way in which the free speech issue comes to campuses, and that is through universities’ own behaviour. For example, every university now has a staffed-up comms office full of people whose job it is to connect academics to journalists, to give their opinions, publicize their research, and engage with the public. Many universities give prizes and awards to faculty who are good at public engagement. But does this fall under academic freedom, or is it free speech? It isn’t clear.
But the biggest problem for universities has been the growing insistence on violating their traditional neutrality (actually it is more like indifference) on political matters. Universities now routinely issue statements of their “official position” on all matters great and small, both local and international, in a way that subtly but undeniably picks sides. And given the immense diversity of both faculty and student populations, and the stakes involved for many of these people, this was never going to be a sustainable practice
When it comes to academic freedom and free speech on campus, it has become common in recent years to blame the problem on illiberal, or “woke,” students. What is increasingly clear though is that well-intentioned academic administrators, are themselves are at least as big a problem. But the very idea that politicians are better placed to resolve these conundrums, or that they have a right to try to do so because of their control over the school’s purse strings, would simply recapitulate the problem at a higher level.
Ideally, this is an issue that universities would resolve internally, hopefully by returning to first principles and their core mission. But it’s not clear how to get there from here; the Trojans are inside the walls, and our universities are, for better or for worse, political institutions. Their best hope now is to avoid turning into political punching bags.
Andrew Potter lives in Montreal. Follow him at his newsletter Nevermind: The Forgotten History of Generation X.
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