I’ve got a running list of new books by academics arguing for theories of speech constriction, in public and private contexts, on the basis of some competing value or set of values. A very popular value in these sorts of proposals is “equality,” but there are many others, as I discuss here.
These typical (indeed, altogether conventional at this point) characteristics of the new speech constriction come together nicely in this new book, What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus (Oxford University Press), by NYU literature and new media professor Ulrich Baer. It is telling that the author “pits” “students’ welfare” as an educational interest opposed to “free inquiry and open debate.” That suggests that free inquiry and open debate in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge, one of the features of the university believed, as a historical matter, to be absolutely fundamental, has new and incompatible rivals in the minds of at least some prominent academicians.
Incidentally, the ancient university such as Paris and Bologna, and even the early American Christian college (see e.g., George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief), had a much more communitarian orientation–one very much attuned to questions of “truth,” as Baer has it. In the case of the American colleges, this was all before the German research model of the university was imported to the US and radically transformed colleges like Harvard and Yale. Of course, the substantive communal commitments of these earlier models were distinctive and bear little resemblance to the equality-dominant approach being pressed in books like Baer’s, whose description is below.
“Angry debates about polarizing speakers have roiled college campuses. Conservatives accuse universities of muzzling unpopular opinions, betraying their values of open inquiry; students sympathetic to the left openly advocate against completely unregulated speech, asking for “safe spaces” and protection against visiting speakers and even curricula they feel disrespects them. Some even call these students “snowflakes”-too fragile to be exposed to opinions and ideas that challenge their worldviews. How might universities resolve these debates about free speech, which pit their students’ welfare against the university’s commitment to free inquiry and open debate?
Ulrich Baer here provides a new way of looking at this dilemma. He explains how the current dichotomy is false and is not really about the feelings of offended students, or protecting an open marketplace of ideas. Rather, what is really at stake is our democracy’s commitment to equality, and the university’s critical role as an arbiter of truth. He shows how and why free speech has become the rallying cry that forges an otherwise uneasy alliance of liberals and ultra-conservatives, and why this First Amendment absolutism is untenable in law and society in general. He draws on law, philosophy, and his extensive experience as a university administrator to show that the lens of equality can resolve this impasse, and can allow the university to serve as a model for democracy that upholds both truth and equality as its founding principles.”