Opinion: Carolina Beat

Professors restoring free speech on campus

At a recent conference, faculty members defending free speech said they and their colleagues need to be more active and vocal

Four classically liberal professors and an economist named Adam Smith walk into a room. No, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke; it was the first event of the Classical Liberals in the Carolinas conference held Aug. 11 at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte.

The annual conference, now in its third year, was conceived by Adam Smith, an assistant professor of economics and director of the Center for Free Market Studies at Johnson and Wales. It offers opportunities for libertarian and right-of-center scholars to discuss important regional issues while building a stronger state-based network.

This year, Smith assembled a group of professors to address a hot button topic: free speech on campus. How did we arrive at this era of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and ideological conformity on campus? And what can professors and university officials do to establish respect for open expression and the marketplace of ideas?

The panel, sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies, was led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Donald Downs, who was joined by Bradley Thompson of Clemson University, Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi of Winston-Salem State University, and James Otteson of Wake Forest University.

Thompson, a political science professor and the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, said that indoctrination is a major reason there seems to be so much hostility to principles of free speech on campus.

Particularly troublesome, he said, is the re-emergence of 1960s-style “struggle sessions” in which people are made to confess their “sins” publicly. Thompson cited a recent case from Guilford College in which students demanded that each week, one white professor be required publicly to denounce his or her “white privilege.”

The panelists had plenty of advice for fellow faculty members on how to approach the issues of indoctrination, censorship, lack of viewpoint diversity, and student-led illiberalism.

For example, Otteson read from a personal blog post in which he imagined what would be Page 1 of an enlightened college’s handbook. The opening page would include the following pledge:

We will continually and robustly exercise the freedom to investigate and examine new ideas, to review our prejudices and settled beliefs critically and regularly, and to confront, in good faith, lines of thought with which we are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable.

Otteson, an active advocate for free speech at Wake Forest, has called for the private university to adopt the Chicago Principles, which mirror the language of the above pledge. So far, he’s seen at least some success; the university’s provost is considering creating a faculty task force on free speech and the president addressed the issue in a letter to alumni.

Winston-Salem State also appears to be making ground. Thanks to the efforts of professor Madjd-Sadjadi, the school became both the first university in the South and the first historically black college to adopt the Chicago Principles.

Madjd-Sadjadi also urged faculty to get involved in campus committees, specifically ones which are likely to consider speech policies. He said the committees that pass problematic speech policies often have only one or two faculty members, but that the administration treats those members as representative of the viewpoint of the entire faculty.

Thompson closed the panel session with a challenge to faculty members: “There is no freedom of speech without freedom of thought. A university without freedom of thought is not a university, it’s something else. If we can’t defend freedom of speech on America’s campuses … then I think we need to find new lines of work.”

Stephanie Keaveney is a policy associate for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.