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The Cost of Free Speech

From the October 3, 2005 issue: In the universities it's almost as high as the tuition.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Thus, the notion of sensitivity led to less toleration rather than more. Those not tolerated were, of course, conservatives. The victims Downs tells of were not conservatives (they were mostly naive and nonpolitical) and some of his faculty and student heroes were conservatives. Conservatives were silenced not so much by speech codes as by not being hired for the faculty and not being invited to give talks or lectures on campus. Some conservative speakers were intimidated by protests; but for the most part, conservatives were simply not there and not invited. First Amendment liberals prefer the cause of the embattled and give little thought to the need for a balance of reasonable or respectable opinion in universities. To exaggerate: They will defend you only if they hate you, or if you are being persecuted. The near-total exclusion of conservatives from the faculties of America's elite universities does not alarm them. The fact that partisan debate outside the universities is freer and livelier than within may be deplorable, but it does not strike them as a free speech issue. They take for granted the willingness of citizens to speak up. They become indignant at the suppression of speech, but worry much less about speech that it never occurs to anyone to express.

A society of free speech needs lively exchange between the parties and not just loud voices from its eccentric fringe--and this is true, too, for universities. For lively exchange you need balance, as it is easy for a dominant majority to be unruffled by dissent when it is only from a token few. One could seek balance by declaring partisan opinion to be academically irrelevant, as when President Robert Sproul at Berkeley in the 1930s (Downs notes) banned the use of university buildings for partisan purposes. Many social scientists in universities follow a similar logic when they adopt the fact/value distinction: "My science is over here and my values are over there; there's no connection!" The fact that most all of us are liberals, and hardly any conservative, is therefore irrelevant. Science is what matters, and that is impartial.

This attitude coexists at universities today with the opposite, postmodern view that science is only a mask of impartiality to conceal the partisan exercise of power. True impartiality being impossible, in this view, we should embrace partiality and politicize the university. Either way, whether from positivism or postmodernism, conservatives lose out. They are not necessary to be heard, and if they are heard, they do harm to progressive causes.

Mention of progress brings up the second problem for free speech liberals, the problem of truth. Liberals stand for progress and, for self-protection, sometimes call themselves progressives. They also stand for diversity and speak of it constantly. Yet progress is hostile to diversity, especially to the diversity that conservatives represent. Progress is progress in truth, in the overcoming of prejudice such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. By identifying and refuting prejudice, progress establishes the reign of truth and narrows the range of acceptable opinions. What, then, is to be done about conservatives who hold these prejudices? Today, conservatives do not, or no longer, hold to racial prejudice, and anyone who does has been banished from responsible discussion. But is it the same for sexism and homophobia? Has debate on these matters been foreclosed, and does it deserve to be?

If liberals agree that one can still believe in sex differences and in the superiority of heterosexual life, they then consent to diversity and admit that conservatism in these respects is respectable. If they do, however, they set limits to progress in truth, or in the spread of truth. They justify a society balanced between liberals and conservatives, the party of progress and the party of order, as John Stuart Mill called them. But this seems to be a society of truth and untruth, permanently divided, which prevents the triumph of truth, of liberalism.

How can liberals accept that? Or respect it? Mill says that truth will become dead dogma if it is not challenged by opposing views, which is his reason for tolerating conservatives. But the problem is that if truth is systematically challenged, it will not be paramount. Diversity will replace truth.

This problem is more acute in universities as opposed to society in general, because universities are dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Downs notes that the difference between free speech and academic freedom is that the latter, unlike the former, relates to truth. A society can have free speech, pace the ACLU, if it does not challenge its own basic presuppositions, like those in the Declaration of Independence. But a university must, in pursuit of truth, hold those presuppositions open to inquiry. To carry out such inquiry, a university would seem to have greater need of diversity than a society. A university would not want to foreclose questions that a society might consider settled.

Conservatism is therefore closer to the mission of the university than liberalism is. Liberals, insofar as they are progressives, believe that it is possible to eliminate prejudice from society. When prejudice is gone, truth prevails, and there is no need to reconsider the errors of the past. Progress is irrevocable, and inquiry shrinks to whatever questions remain unsettled. Conservatives, believing that it is not possible to eliminate prejudice, are more tolerant than liberals; they expect society to be, and remain, a mixture of truth and untruth. Conservatives may be prejudiced themselves, or they may be just tolerant of prejudice in others. If society will always be a mixture of truth and untruth, it may be necessary to see what sort of untruth is politically compatible with truth, and what sort is not.

This is the problem we face in judging the civil rights of terrorists, a problem Downs alludes to but does not discuss. We surely do not need speech codes to hobble conservatives--they should be listened to!--but we may well need measures to suppress the preaching of Islamic terrorists. There we have true hate speech composed of hateful ideas, and as a conservative once said, ideas have consequences.

But Downs points out that the idea of sensitivity erodes the difference between speaking and doing. The function of speech comes to be preserving the self-esteem of those spoken to, rather than addressing them; and sexual harassment, a certain behavior, comes to include words found offensive.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard.