How to Hear Campus Free Speech

Can a pragmatic approach to free speech on campus produce more inclusive, and more educational, institutions?

Debate is integral to the modern university: academic freedom, peer-reviewed research, and even the idea of curricular electives all depend in crucial ways on free and vigorous disputation. What point would there be to a system of higher education that did not push all its participants—the students in the seminar room as well as the faculty in the research seminar—to challenge each other’s assumptions?

As I write, in the spring of 2020, university instructors and students sit in some form of isolation before our screens, hemmed in by a pandemic that cannot be argued against. From this new vantage, the role of debate in higher education is more obvious than ever. Although online learning has been a feature of some higher-education institutions for years, social-distancing policies have forced many instructors to hurriedly adapt their pedagogy to available technologies. The ensuing delays, glitches, and merely virtual connections have been experienced by many as stifling dialogue and debate. In moving education hastily online, we have realized yet again that delivering content cannot suffice for learning if there is no effective ability to question the meanings of that content.

Now more than ever, we can see that without debate, higher education could come to be replaced by a hypervocational model of teaching, in which yesteryear’s veterans of industry draw on their experience (in just about any field other than education) to prepare next year’s graduates for last year’s jobs. Remove the cultivation of debate from higher education, and what you are left with is a pedagogy of industry anecdotes.

While some of the obstacles to debate and dialogue in the current moment are occasioned by technological limitations, they also play into a deeper structure of campus policy and classroom climate that, in different ways, can also stifle the free exchange of ideas. These structural issues have, in recent decades, given rise to a series of incendiary campus clashes that are felt by many to be disquieting.

Given how central debate is to the very mission of higher education, why do we so often feel unsettled, even at times downright baffled, when campuses redirect their relish for debate onto themselves? Why are we flummoxed when students at elite liberal arts colleges call out their instructors for perpetrating a racist pedagogy? Why do most at either end of the political spectrum—as well as the liberal moderates in between—feel so unsure about the best course of action when far-right talking heads show up to give an off-the-rails lecture at a public university and far-left student groups turn out to shout them down?

To some onlookers, and even some participants, the high pitch of these debates gives the appearance of narcissistic obsession and hysterical idealism. To others, these debates represent an important contribution to the ongoing improvement of one of our most central liberal institutions.

Michael Roth’s Safe Enough Spaces proposes a pragmatic approach to higher education’s most recent campus wars. The book specifically advocates for an engaged pragmatism as a way for students, faculty, and administrators to work out—or, better yet, to work with—their disagreements. Roth’s pragmatism avoids clichés about “getting along,” and points rather toward the work that all parties must undertake in order to understand each other. Though it seems counterintuitive, a pragmatism wherein both sides modify their own perspectives—rather than merely hoping to compromise in a vanishing middle—would, according to Roth, ultimately produce more inclusive, and more educational, institutions.

Though he does not himself make use of it, Roth’s approach to campus free-speech debates can be understood as benefiting from an important, but too little discussed, distinction in free speech: there are those who want their own speech heard and are eager (or at least willing) to hear others in reply, and those who want only their speech to be heard and yet care not to listen to others.1 The first kind of speaker strives for discussion and dialogue. Those of the second kind care only to promulgate, or advertise, their own views. Every college professor knows the difference between the student whose borderline-offensive view is put forward as part of a process of self-challenging inquiry, and the student whose borderline-offensive view is, well, just put forward.

The difference between dialogue and unhearing speech is easily recognizable in many classrooms (as well as in many other social settings, such as the holiday dinner table, or the comments section of even the most reputable online publications). We can acknowledge this difference by actually calling our students’ (or family members’, or fellow readers’) attention to it. Do we really want to have a conversation here and explore our ideas together? Or do we just want to insist that we are right? If we aren’t even listening to each other, what is the actual practical value of being right?

Roth’s book helps us see how preparing ourselves to hear one another is surely part of what education depends upon. If that is the right way to think about education, then Roth’s titular idea of a “safe enough space” is not one that somehow magically, and congenially, compromises between offensiveness and respectfulness. Rather, it is a space that might be continuously carved out in classrooms, and in other fora for inquiry on campus, to ensure they are settings for actively pursuing an education worth having. Such an education would surely involve the idea that almost all the views with which we disagree are worth debating, and therefore worth hearing out.

Do we really want to have a conversation here and explore our ideas together? Or do we just want to insist that we are right?

Safe Enough Spaces helpfully situates today’s campus politics in both its contemporary and historical contexts. Roth focuses on three blistering concerns: first, university administrators’ move away from affirmative-action admissions policies toward policies that cultivate “belonging” on campus; second, various complaints about what often gets labeled as “political correctness”; and third, the issue of free speech on college campus, specifically regarding hate speech and safe spaces. Roth’s discussion of this last topic is easily the best part of the book. Presumably Roth (or at least his editor) recognized this when he chose for the book’s title a phrase that illuminates the themes of the third chapter.

To understand Roth’s thinking on these three issues, it is first important to understand his approach to them all, which he labels “pragmatist.”  Indeed, Roth’s subtitle declares the book “a pragmatist’s approach.” But what Roth doesn’t quite let on in the book is that there are two kinds of pragmatists, one of which is better suited to cultivating an educational approach to free speech on campus. On the one hand, there is the pragmatist who just wants everyone to get along. This pragmatist urges compromise because he or she wants to be liked, or even loved, by all sides, and just as much wants all sides to like, or even love, one another. This pragmatist believes everlastingly that all genuine disagreement is a thin veil that can be pierced if only we can just take a broader perspective. Call theirs “the pragmatism of congeniality.” In the context of free-speech disagreements, the congenial pragmatist—optimistic about the possibility of compromise—will approach the debate with the presumption that everyone will be happy (or at least happy enough) if they all just get to say their little bit.

The other kind of pragmatist sees things a bit more clearly. This is the pragmatist who takes social conflict to be a real challenge. This type is prepared to confront the tragic fact that some genuine values may, in some circumstances, be really sacrificed, and without redemption. This pragmatist is less tied to the project of urging us to recognize our true commonality, and more focused on the task of forging a way forward in which both sides of an opposing issue can, even if only temporarily, recognize themselves. Call this “the pragmatism of work.”

The put-in-the-work pragmatist approaches free-speech issues by affirming the plain fact that we will just have to commit more time (as well as other resources) to creating spaces, venues, and fora in which everybody is not only entitled to talk, but also encouraged to actually listen.

By contrast, the congenial pragmatist is not particularly pragmatic at all. Their approach is really more of a rosy idealism. It only works when both sides in a partisan conflict are already just about ready to get along. And when it does not work, it takes simplistic solace in the faith that it really ought to have worked.


Who’s Afraid of Affirmative Action?

By Mack DeGeurin

Put-in-the-work pragmatism is committed to one thing only: doing what can be done such that we just might, with creative cunning and not a little luck, achieve more inclusive social practices and institutions in situations where it seems hardly possible. One of the best examples of working pragmatism that I know of is from William James’s classic 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” The essay was based on a 1906 speech James delivered at Stanford University, just two months prior to the devastations of the San Francisco earthquake. The conflict James addressed in his lecture was that between the US’s early westward forays in colonialism and the peace-party advocates of global cooperation.

James, a well-known member of the then-famous Anti-Imperialist League, was widely recognized as a partisan of the peaceniks. Yet he did not take the occasion of his speech as a soapbox for dismantling militarism. To the surprise of some of his listeners, he advocated an honest look into the ideals espoused by the opposing camp. James found within the bellicosity of the war hawks a valorization, surely valuable, of strenuous commitment. James wondered if such soldierly virtue might be detached from its recurring manifestation in violent conquest. He offered, as an alternative outlet, a “moral equivalent” of militarism in a “war” against the threats posed by natural disasters and national calamities.

As an example of James’s strenuous “moral equivalent,” think of a proactive commitment to shoring up physical and social infrastructure against the devastating fury of surging oceans and mutating viruses. Or consider the towering highway bridges built by the Civilian Conservation Corps some three decades after James’s initial speech; the essay that speech eventually became was, in fact, cited as an inspiration by the CCC’s architects. That James’s argument could speak to such different possibilities attests to the wide applicability of the working pragmatism he sought to espouse.

When it gets to issues of campus free speech, the book is much less reassuring and much more refreshing.

Is Roth’s pragmatism more congenial or more working? Given that the former is so easy to fall into and the latter is so difficult to actually achieve, it should come as no surprise that his book evinces both. Roth’s goal of forging a pragmatist vision of how to increase inclusiveness on college campuses is surely desirable. But the vision does not come into full focus until the third chapter. And before it gets there, Roth is too easily read as wanting to have it both ways concerning issues of campus-diversity plans and political correctness.

Consider chapter 1, in which Roth even calls attention to the congenial pragmatism courted by his topics. He notes that “talk about admissions—a zero sum game in which somebody doesn’t get in because someone else is given advantages—lends itself to controversy.” This approach is then contrasted to the idea that “it is much more palatable for administrators to focus on the meaning and value of belonging to a campus community.” Roth’s chapter does not itself demand palatability. He rather aims to track a shift from controversial topics to those more congenial when it comes to campus diversity. Yet this very shift in framing functionally ignores contested issues concerning college admissions.

Intentions aside, Roth’s chapter performs this shift from admissions to belonging, and in so doing declines to, say, focus on unresolved social issues concerning the goals embedded in the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment (the law that shapes affirmative-action policies at public universities). Accordingly, the chapter cannot help but end on an innocent note: “Wherever one stands on issues of affirmative action, most can agree that diversity isn’t just about admissions—it’s about the educational culture created by a university.” This is, to be sure, true. But how did we get to a point where one can just brush aside the debate on affirmative action? Too congenial is the administrative pragmatist who suggests that it might not matter much where one stands on that issue.

Occasional lapses into an administrative congeniality notwithstanding, Safe Enough Spaces is on the whole far more serious than the halcyon vernacular of contemporary managerialism could accommodate. When it gets to issues of campus free speech, which is where all these collisions come to a point anyway, the book is much less reassuring and much more refreshing.

Roth’s third chapter carves out a position that offers a welcome alternative to the contemporary free-speech libertarianism that has dominated legal thinking since the era of early 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes may have been a libertarian about the First Amendment, but he was also a pragmatist and one of William James’s most regular conversation partners in their Bostonian youth. Holmes’s free-speech libertarianism was not as dogmatic as subsequent jurisprudence. It extended only as far as the law, which he could recognize did not cover every little nook and cranny of life.

But today’s free-speech libertarians on the Court take a century of Holmesian jurisprudence as a precedent for bringing the First Amendment to bear on nearly everything, such that they conclude that hardly anything that can be considered expressive should be regulated. As Justice Elena Kagan noted in her powerful dissent in the post–Citizens United case Janus v. AFSCME (the case that ruled against unions’ mandatory collection of collective bargaining fees as a free-speech violation), “Speech is everywhere. … So the majority’s road runs long.”

Kagan’s point—and Roth’s, too, in citing her—is that the ubiquity of speech is not a good justification for extending First Amendment protections against regulation to just about every walk of life. The result of this logic is that, in Roth’s paraphrase of Kagan, “no regulations will be permitted for any public policy goals that states and their citizens decide are worthwhile,” because all regulations violate someone’s sincere speech.

Roth’s alternative to free-speech libertarianism is not, however, to simply redraw the line concerning what contents of speech are allowable on campus. Rather than focusing on what can and cannot be said, colleges have the luxury, and indeed the task, of not having to always settle debates in First Amendment jurisprudence. Institutions of education can take the more pragmatic path in this case by working to cultivate fuller and more inclusive spaces for the exercise of free speech.2


Free Speech and Equality on Campus

By Ulrich Baer

Instead of adjudicating speech, Roth believes, we can focus our energies on cultivating more engaged, and engaging, debates. “The pedagogical challenge,” Roth says, “is to help students recognize that they can be critical of ideas without disparaging the people who hold them.” He emphasizes as “a core skill” for universities to cultivate (again, not the same thing as a core legal doctrine for universities to uphold) the work of “trying to understand the logic of one another’s arguments.” Roth connects this to his pragmatist perspective with an idea that returns us to the free-speech distinction that I noted above: “Listening seriously to others and trying to understand why they hold the views they do without immediately judging those views—this is at the core of pragmatic liberal education.”

A speaker who also listens is better than one who does not. But this is not because listening will magically whisk those on two sides of a debate into a happy compromise. Speech that prioritizes listening is better, at least in higher education, because it actually performs the work of education for those on any side of a debate. This is all too often overlooked in today’s campus wars. We all like to believe that we are right. But it actually takes work to learn alongside those with whom we disagree. It is difficult to say if this might be generalizable as an approach to today’s polarized political climate. But it is not difficult to recognize that it should be valuable on college campuses (or at least on those that have not been hypervocationalized), where presumably all the participants show up because they want to learn.

Roth should not be read as insisting that students ought to be made to tolerate white-supremacist rhetoric in their classes. He should rather be read as insisting that left-leaning students should be encouraged to try to understand, and develop explanations for, such features of our society as: a feeling of despair on the part of many working-class Americans that is sometimes stoked by demagogues into unacceptable tones of resentment; or the idea, popular among economic libertarians, that progressive fiscal policies would be wonderful if they actually helped those in need but, in fact, regularly fail for principled reasons. Roth is correct that engaging in such inquiries, which involves listening seriously to those with whom one disagrees, is exactly what universities should be asking of students.


This article was commissioned by Carolyn Devericon

  1. I draw this distinction from an unlikely source: Chief Justice Warren Burger’s concurrence in Healy v. James, a 1972 case overturning a Connecticut college’s refusal to grant official club status to a Students for a Democratic Society group. Burger wrote: “The relatively placid life of the college campus of the past has not prepared either administrators or students for their respective responsibilities in maintaining an atmosphere in which divergent views can be asserted vigorously, but civilly, to the end that those who seek to be heard accord the same right to all others.” There is in Burger’s language a valuable emphasis, surely underdeveloped not only in subsequent free-speech law but also in a range of other social contexts, on the act of hearing as already internal to speech.
  2. The reader will note that I take it to be a pragmatic issue as to where campuses need to keep their eyes patiently on the law. Something seems to have gone wrong when Roth sets aside the issues of antidiscrimination law that govern affirmative action. But nothing seems plainly amiss when Roth declines to resolve the conundrums of free-speech jurisprudence in favor of building more educative habits of speech. The pragmatist’s point could never be that legal questions always take priority. Rather, they should be prepared to admit that some issues are too pressing to leave open, while others are not.
Featured image: Question Time (2016). Photograph by Edwin Andrade / Unsplash