The coercive power of truth: An attack on and a defense of the Chicago Principles of free speech

Ten days ago Segal Ben-Porath, a professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, published a critique in Inside Higher Education (IHE) of the University of Chicago’s “Statement on Principles of Free Expression,” a set of free-speech guidelines now adopted by over 60 American universities. Click on the screenshot below if you want to know “where’s her beef?”:

Ben-Porath’s main complaint, which, according to her c.v., seems to be her preoccupation over the last few years, has been that allowing free speech on campuses erases marginalized groups and enables “hate speech”—in other words, the usual arguments against freedom of speech.  She gussies them up a bit, as do professors at Williams College, by saying that the Chicago Principles lack nuance; in her case, they “offer false assurance” because they don’t give universities guidance about what to do when free speech clashes with student sentiments:

If a group of young female aspiring scientists are raising concerns about statements that faculty members are making in their classes and labs, the institutional response should depend on whether those students are at, say, Bryn Mawr, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Utah State University. If African American students express opposition to a campus group’s invitation to an anti-Black Lives Matter speaker, their paths for legitimate protest are paved by the college’s history, its student body makeup and the willingness of the college leadership to work with them and help them make their voices heard (rather than restricting them to a “free speech zone”).

The Chicago principles would provide little guidance in such cases. An administration that endorsed them may be expressing its commitment to protect the professor and the invited speakers, but would that suffice as a response? It does nothing to satisfy the concerns of the students nor helps the college fulfill its mission to not only advance research but also educate all of its students. Free speech will be protected, but some students will find it harder to benefit from their education; they may be effectively silenced, which may be permissible but is surely undesirable. The invitation to speak their minds in response does little to help create an environment conducive to learning if they feel as though they are shouting into a void; in some states, protesting can lead to disciplinary action. . .

Today, the endorsement of the Chicago principles comes at the expense of the reasonable demands from people on campuses who argue that free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry — especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right. If an institutional endorsement of the principles is the end of the conversation about free speech, it undermines the ability of that college or university to fulfill its teaching mission.

The words she writes are weasel words, because while Ben-Porath pays lip service to free speech, she really seems to want it limited when it offends minority students (though women, of course, are now in the majority on American campuses). For example, look at this, which purports to favor free speech but really doesn’t:

The current state of free speech will not be resolved by making better rules or endorsing any set of principles, no matter how well crafted. Policies are necessary to ensure equal treatment, but preserving free speech on campuses requires a redoubling of our efforts to include all of our students in a community of free inquiry. That requires a continuing commitment to listening and responding to the legitimate demands of students who feel excluded, while helping them grow and recognize their agency and power.

Well, some of the “legitimate demands of the students who feel excluded” include curbing speech that is “undesirable” and “effectively silences” them. Creating the environment that Ben-Porath says she wants means curtailing some speech, for there’s no other way she suggests that could restore the benefits that free speech supposedly subtracts from the education of marginalized students.

Ben-Porath further argues that free speech is basically a tool used by the Right to protect their own. It’s not, for free speech is classically the purview of the Left. And sadly, the curbing of free speech is being used by some Leftist students (and professors) to censor the Right. But, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out incessantly, who will get the power to decide whom to censor? The only reasonable answer is that of the Chicago Principles: nobody gets that power, not so long as the speech at issue is the kind protected by the First Amendment.

Ben-Porath is further misguided because the Chicago Principles aren’t meant to guide colleges about what to do when free speech upset students. The Principles simply establish freedom of speech as an overarching principle of discourse on campus, to wit (this is from the Principles):

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff “to discuss any problem that presents itself,” free of interference.

This is not to say that this freedom is absolute. In narrowly-defined circumstances, the University may properly restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, is threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests. Moreover, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.

Fundamentally, however, the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.

As a corollary to this commitment, members of the University community must also act in conformity with this principle. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

If students get upset, well, the University of Chicago is free to (and should) address their concerns—but not at the expense of diluting the Principles. When you hear calls for “nuance” when employing or considering the Chicago Principles, it’s invariably a call to limit or dilute those principles.

Fortunately, there’s a counter-piece today in IHE by Michael Poliakoff, formerly a classical studies scholar and now President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, characterized as “an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.” Click on the screenshot:

He pretty much takes Ben-Porath apart, though in a scholarly and inoffensive way:

Ben-Porath expresses two major concerns with the Chicago principles: 1) that they are not a one-size-fits-all solution to the free speech debate and 2) that the Chicago principles, and free speech more widely, can come at the cost of silencing minorities — whether religious, ethnic, racial or sexual.

Ben-Porath is correct that endorsing the Chicago principles is not a silver bullet that ensures freedom of expression, a point that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently concurred with. But that is not what endorsing the principles is meant to accomplish. The Chicago principles constitute a statement of intent that a university can use to guide it in fostering the free exchange of ideas. If a university is so committed, it will align its bylaws, student code of conduct, faculty handbook and programming to reflect that commitment.

For example, after Purdue University endorsed the Chicago principles, it instituted a freshman orientation that focused on the importance of free speech. Other institutions translate the Chicago principles into action in other ways. Just as the Declaration of Independence has no legal power and cannot ensure that all men are treated with the respect due to being created equal, it articulates a sacred American value with profound effect.

Re point 2:

Ben-Porath’s second point is that the demand for free speech is itself problematic, arguably even destructive of academic values. That assertion bears the marks of ideological prejudice in its portrayal of the concern to protect free speech not as a categorical value of higher education but as a means of protecting conservatism.

. . . Ben-Porath claims that free speech “comes at the expense of the reasonable demands” from those burdened by the free speech that protects biased views. But what is bias to one person may reasonably be seen as truth by another: that is precisely why the free exchange of ideas alone can further understanding. Perhaps Ben-Porath is right that proving biased views to be incorrect is a burden, but it is a responsibility that comes with leading an examined life and a valuable educational exercise in and of itself. To protect students from this activity would weaken the academic experience.

It is, moreover, all too short a step from that to Herbert Marcuse’s theory that tolerance of viewpoints that diverge from liberalism is itself repressive, and from there to the contemporary meme that speech that departs from the perceived interests of the oppressed is a form of violence that justifies physical violence to counter it. At institutions including the University of California, Berkeley, and Middlebury College, the fruit of that ideology has stained the reputation of higher education.

Well said—though it shouldn’t need to be said. But people like Dr. Ben-Porath are becoming increasingly vocal on campuses, for their social-justice mission takes precedence over free speech—another clash of liberal values that’s resolved in the wrong way. Given the importance of free and open discourse not just on campus, but in society as a whole, it would require something extraordinary to curb the kind of speech that the Chicago Principles are meant to protect. I can’t even imagine what that would be.

And we should always remember that even if free speech protects expression of conservative or even hateful views, it’s also been responsible for the remarkable progress in equality and morality discussed by Steve Pinker in his last two books. Poliakoff knows this, and ends his excellent essay with an unassailable point:

The worst irony of all is that the world of higher education, which should be eager for vigorous debate and challenge, often lags behind the diverse leaders who embrace free speech as the engine of progress. U.S. congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis asserted, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.” And, in a more recent struggle, Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and LGBTQ advocate, observed, “Not long ago, gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. In a society where free exchange is the rule, that was enough. We had the coercive power of truth.”

The integrity of higher education, too, rests on the uncompromising protection of the powerful truth that those who struggle for minority rights know so well.

Amen, brother!


h/t: Luana


  1. Posted December 21, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure what she intends by naming Utah State University in her list of hypothetical campuses. Our biggest free-speech incident was Anita Sarkisian, when our campus officials failed to guarantee adequate security against a right-wing threat. Our campus serves a region that is upwards of 70% Republican, upwards of 80% Mormon, and extremely conservative. The only reason marginalized groups have any voice at all is due to our commitment to free speech regardless of content. I have experienced a number of “hate speech” accusations, most of them leveled by white Mormon students who are offended by a minority view that insults their majority religion or culture. If we want to secure expression for marginalized voices, we need principles of free speech that can be accepted and upheld by conservatives. They are not going to embrace a progressive social philosophy, but at least they can embrace a neutral policy where they don’t get suppressed, and they don’t try to suppress anyone else.

    • Posted December 21, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Sarkeesian is a fraud and a grifter, whose previous endeavors included graphology services and promoting a Tony Robbins-style self-motivation program.

      There were indications that Sarkeesian or her puppet master, Jonathan McIntosh, made that bomb threat themselves. In any case, the FBI found it not a credible threat but Sarkeesian chose to cancel anyway. Which played right into her pity-mongering schtick — quite audacious really, from someone who whines about ‘damsel in distress’ tropes in video games she’s never actually played.

      • Posted December 21, 2018 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        That’s unrelated to my point but whatever.

  2. Posted December 21, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    “some students … may be effectively silenced, which may be permissible but is surely undesirable.”

    In SJW-speak, students being “silenced”, “marginalised” or “erased” actually means only “… disagreed with”.

    But disagreeing with someone higher up the oppression hierarchy is of course not allowed.

    • Posted December 21, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Anyone who claims someone is “marginalized” or “erased” should be challenged to describe in detail that phenomenon.

      • Posted December 21, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        That’s easy, the “marginalised” students are the ones dominating the Student Union, dominating the student newspapers, and telling everyone else what they are and are not allowed to say.

  3. Posted December 21, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    They lose me at “legitimate demands of the students”. Clearly these people are attempting to have their cake and eat it too. Of course they support free speech. It’s speaking freely that they have trouble with.

  4. CAS
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    The tender, whiny babies are multiplying and they need our support so they cab finally be happy!

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The Chicago Principles simply comply with our own federal law. If they need to stray from this standard for the protection of some students they are creating a false protection on campus that does not exist anywhere else. It sets you up for a very hard time if and when you ever leave school. Maybe this is what you get when many of the teachers are behind this movement. They live inside the protected environment they promote.

  6. ploubere
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s distressing that some faculty in higher education fail to understand the purpose of higher education, which at its core requires unrestricted free inquiry. Without that, it’s indoctrination.

  7. Posted December 21, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Aside from containing flat-out wrong assertions and expressing totalitarian wishes, that article is incredibly obtuse and verbose. Bottom line, the prose is just crap. When Ben-Porath writes

    If a group of young female aspiring scientists…

    it clearly doesn’t refer to a groups of young scientist who aspire to be females — as it grammatically suggests. But neither is it clear whether this hypothetical group of young women are already scientists with grand aspirations, or only hope to become scientists one day.

    Muddled thoughts & fuzzy logic inevitably produce cluttered & confusing language.

    • phil brown
      Posted December 21, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Well a couple of commas would have made it clearer, but I think you know what she means. Everyone needs an editor sometimes.

  8. Posted December 21, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    From another interview:

    Ben-Porath also recognized that certain groups of people such as communities of color, women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and other target identities carry a heavier burden when it comes to defending themselves against hateful discourse.

    “We need to shift this burden, such that it is equally shouldered by everyone who believes that hate discourse is inherently wrong. Not just target communities,” said Ben-Porath.

    The implied remedy is to somewhat limit the free speech of the ‘privileged’ and give more air time to the ‘marginalized’.

    But how does one quantify the relative privilege : marginalization disparity? For if one cannot, then how does one quantify the allocation free speech access?

    • chrism
      Posted December 22, 2018 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      “The implied remedy is to somewhat limit the free speech of the ‘privileged’ and give more air time to the ‘marginalized’.
      But how does one quantify the relative privilege : marginalization disparity? For if one cannot, then how does one quantify the allocation free speech access?”

      Given that the basic purpose of a university is to educate through enquiry, limiting the airtime of one side will also skew the results into unreliability. I’d go further, and suggest that those who claim to have suffered violence through someone else using their words are aware that their verbal argument in reply might not convince, and thus play the joker of transgressed rules. We’ve seen it in schoolyards where one child always is the one to tell (“I’m telling on you – Miss! Miss!) and we’ve seen unprofessional soccer players who prefer to feign an injury rather than play the ball. It’s the same thing when coddled students recoil from challenges and retreat behind the apron strings of those in loco parentis. Sadly, all they prove is that they, perhaps by virtue of their over-protected upbringing rather than any fault of their own, are not university material.

  9. Posted December 21, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    If you don’t support free speech for people or views you don’t like, then you don’t support free speech. Full stop.

    It’s like people who claim tolerance but only for people they like; you can’t “tolerate” someone that you already like. You can only tolerate people you don’t like.

    The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Virtue Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”

    Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.

    The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why.

    Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”

    The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”

    And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”

  10. BJ
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    “…they ‘offer false assurance’ because they don’t give universities guidance about what to do when free speech clashes with student sentiments…”

    That’s the whole damn point. If someone’s speech offends a student, it doesn’t matter. You can’t bring “nuance” into these principles by giving guidelines regarding what to do when free speech offends “student sentiments”; then it’s not free speech.

    I’ll give some credit to Ms. Ben-Porath here. She has managed to dress her BS up in a pretty little box so it doesn’t seem like she’s speaking out against students having free speech. But she isn’t fooling me, and she isn’t fooling anyone else smart enough to see through her little song and dance.

    • BJ
      Posted December 21, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      I should say, “speaking out against students and faculty having free speech,” since she seems to think faculty should also be subject to the whims of random students’ and activist groups’ feelings.

    • Deodand
      Posted December 21, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      The problem is how many people will see past the sophistry.

      There are a large number of students, not just in the US, who have been taught that the purpose of free speech is to promote equality (or support whatever the speaker/listener believe in.) if someones speech does not promote equality, then they are a ‘fascist’ and have no rights of any kind. And that is where the danger lies.

  11. W.Benson
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Her first name is Sigal.

  12. Jon Gallant
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Ben Porath’s claim that free speech is basically a tool used for the benefit of Rightwingers has been made often before:
    as the basis for the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic, the Securitate in the
    Socialist Republic of Romania, the
    Всероссийская Чрезвычайная Комиссия (known as VChK or Cheka) in a large country further east, and all the other political police in regimes that insisted they were “building Socialism”. This experiment was replicated so many times that it presumably reveals a general principle.

  13. eric
    Posted December 21, 2018 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Free speech will be protected, but some students will find it harder to benefit from their education; they may be effectively silenced, which may be permissible but is surely undesirable.

    How exactly does this “effectively silenced” thing work? Are offensive words some sort of magic spell, capable of preventing sound waves from traveling from your throat out through your mouth?

    Sure, they can upset you. Fluster you. Embarrass you. But in the face of legal speech (i.e. not direct threats of violence), the only thing silencing you is you.

    • BJ
      Posted December 21, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      In fact, it seems like the more these sensitive students get offended, the more we hear from them. “Silencing” and “erasure” and other such words are constantly thrown about by people like Ben-Porath as emotional cudgels, but they have no relation to reality.

  14. Roo
    Posted December 22, 2018 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    On reflection, I think that maybe erosion in the belief in free speech is linked to an erosion in faith in one’s fellow humans to be swayed by the best argument. I think maybe internet culture has something to do with this, as people increasingly witness clearly reasonable ideas being shouted down by torch-and-pitchfork-bearing mobs (on all sides of the political spectrum.) It creates a sense that arguments are not what is important, rather, gang mentality is what is important, ergo people must be protected from gang mentality.

    I don’t know what the solution for this is. But again, on reflection, I suspect these two phenomenon are linked.

  15. Diane G
    Posted December 22, 2018 at 1:22 am | Permalink


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