When Thomas Jefferson conceived the University of Virginia (UVA) two centuries ago, he based it on a radical proposition. He said, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson wrote those words in 1820, when most universities were still church-affiliated and constrained by religious doctrine, offering only a limited course of study such as law and divinity. To create a university based on absolute freedom of thought and expression was a bold idea.
Today, free expression is protected by the First Amendment at our public universities and upheld by the commitment to academic freedom at our private universities. Free speech is our lingua franca in academia, and any restriction on it seems incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education.
Yet those principles that Jefferson articulated 200 years ago, and that we continue to espouse in our colleges and universities today—following truth, tolerating error, fighting error with reason—are questioned, and even threatened, on college campuses.
There is some irony in the fact that I began by quoting Thomas Jefferson because my quoting of Jefferson became the crux of a free-speech debate at my own university last fall. In early November, following the presidential election, I sent a message to UVA students, faculty, and staff calling for unity and civility on our grounds. I was planning to send this message regardless of who won the election because it was clear that the divisiveness would continue no matter who became president, and I did not want our firsttime voters to become disillusioned.
In the message, I urged students not to withdraw from the political process because of any dismay they might be feeling. I included a Jefferson quote that spoke to their future roles as servants and leaders in our country’s government:
University of Virginia students “are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.”
In response, about 500 UVA faculty and students sent me a letter asking me to stop quoting Thomas Jefferson in my messages to the University community. They criticized me for using Jefferson as a “moral compass,” noting his involvement in slavery during his lifetime.
In my response to their letter, I made the point that quoting Jefferson—or any historical figure—does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from university life. For those faculty and students, I made it clear that I disagreed with their argument. At the same time, however, I said that I “fully endorsed” their right to speak out on issues they care about, including UVA’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy. Members of the university’s board of visitors supported my position on this issue.
Of course the Jefferson-quote controversy at UVA is just one of many examples of free-speech issues. Lately, campus free-speech controversies have often revolved around the disinviting of speakers whose views offend one group or another.
In February 2015, the well-known feminist activist Angela Davis was disinvited from speaking at Texas Tech after College Republicans launched a petition to block her appearance. Later the same year, Suzanne Venker, a well-known critic of feminism, was disinvited from speaking at Williams College after student protests. Ironically, Venker was to appear as part of a speaker series titled “Uncomfortable Learning,” created to expose students to views that contrast with their own.
In April 2015, the singer-songwriter Common was disinvited from speaking at Kean University’s graduation ceremony after an outcry from law enforcement officials who complained that the lyrics of one of his songs glorified violence against police.
In February, officials at the University of California, Berkeley, cancelled a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, former Breitbart News editor, after violent protesters (who were not Berkeley students) took over an otherwise peaceful protest. Because of the cancellation, Berkeley officials were accused of suppressing free speech, and the president of the United States, in a tweet, raised the threat of cutting the school’s federal funding as punishment. A few months later, in April, conservative writer Ann Coulter pulled out of a planned speech at Berkeley. This was after she had insisted she would speak even after the university stated it would not accommodate her event due to safety concerns.
In March, hundreds of students and some non-students at Middlebury College shouted down Charles Murray, a writer who is accused of espousing racist ideas, stopping him from giving a public lecture. College officials moved Murray and the faculty moderator, Allison Stanger, to another location to livestream the discussion. After the event, protesters surrounded them as they were leaving, things got physical, and the protesters injured Stanger. As far as I know, this was the first such incident that involved a physical attack. What’s also troubling is that protestors wanted to shout down Murray without even knowing what he would say—potentially robbing themselves of the opportunity to refute his views.
Notice that this list of disinvited and shouted-down speakers includes those who lean left as well as those who lean right. They range from extremely liberal to extremely illiberal. The attack on free speech is not coming exclusively from the right or the left. Free speech is being attacked from both sides, from all sides. We’ve even seen efforts by state legislatures to regulate free speech on campus. In our leadership roles in higher education, as presidents and as trustees, our responsibility is to stand in the middle ground between extremes, defending free speech for everyone, fending off attacks from all sides, regardless of political beliefs or personal opinions.
The current free-speech controversy is riddled with ironies. In the 1960s, during the Free Speech Movement that started at Berkeley and spread to other campuses, students were the loudest proponents of free speech. Today, some students are the loudest opponents of free speech—sometimes without even realizing that they are.
A 2016 Gallup survey on “Free Expression on Campus” showed that college students were overwhelmingly in favor of free expression on campus in general, but they were also in favor of restrictions on “intentionally offensive” speech. In this environment, many universities have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that may offend any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. In a report published this year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known as FIRE, surveyed about 450 schools and found that 40 percent of them had severely restrictive speech codes that, in FIRE’s opinion, clearly prohibit constitutionally protected speech.
In the 1960s, Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr lifted a ban that had kept Communist speakers off the campus. He explained the decision by saying, “The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas. Thus it permits the freest expression of views before students, trusting to their good sense in passing judgment on these views. Only in this way can it best serve American democracy.”
If presidents and trustees protect college students today from opposing views and diverse perspectives through “speech codes” or other restrictions on free expression, we do them a great disservice because we are leaving them unprepared for the intellectual and social fray they will enter the moment they step off our campuses. The college campus is a natural proving ground for putting free speech principles into practice because in higher education we believe in two fundamental ideas that sometimes come into conflict with each other.
Because of our commitment to academic freedom, open discourse, and the clash of ideas, we vigorously support free speech. At the same time, in our increasingly diverse campus communities, we urge our students and others to show respect for the diverse backgrounds and views represented on our campuses.
Last October, PEN America released a report titled And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities. The report concludes that an environment where “too many offenses are considered impermissible or even punishable becomes sterile, constraining, and inimical to creativity.”
The danger in shutting out viewpoints that differ from our own is that we create a personal echo chamber in which our deeply held beliefs are continually reinforced by those who share those beliefs. If we follow only the news outlets and socialmedia feeds that align with our opinions, we have no access to the diversity of ideas that we espouse in higher education.
Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill addressed this issue in his essay “On Liberty.” The following is an excerpt:
He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion … Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.
To put John Stuart Mill in terms of one recent controversy, the people who shouted down Charles Murray at Middlebury were only selling themselves short because they lost the chance to hear his views directly from him and therefore lost the chance to understand them more fully, and to refute them more fully. But they also prevented students who were not protesting from hearing and judging for themselves.
Ninety years ago, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
The solution is to “tolerate any error” but always to “combat [the errors] with reason,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s language. We can’t go back to the ancient anti-religious- freedom concept that “error has no rights”; that idea ended with people getting burned at the stake. In the 21st century, everyone has the right to be wrong.
The principles of free speech and campus inclusiveness should not be in conflict with each other; rather, they should reinforce each other—more voices, more perspectives from different backgrounds, all free to speak, free to disagree, free to discuss and debate.
We need to promote both free speech and diversity and inclusiveness on our campuses; we cannot let that become a mutually exclusive relationship. With the right to free speech firmly established, we need to create inclusive environments in which everyone feels free to exercise that right. So how can presidents and trustees do that?
First, when members of university communities learn about verbal insults that include racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnic, or other forms of bias, we should join together to denounce them and to support those who have been targeted.
Second, we need to continue our efforts to diversify our faculty, staff, and student populations. When people of different races, genders, and backgrounds come together, the exchange enriches the learning experience for every member of our college and university communities.
Third, we need to continue to review our curricula as well as extracurricular activities, such as study-abroad programs, to ensure all our students have opportunities to be exposed to a wide range of cultures, beliefs, and perspectives, both in the classroom and beyond. Those exposures instill cultural awareness and tolerance in our students.
AGB has provided guidance for administrative leaders and board members as we seek to promote free expression while also nurturing campus climates that are inclusive, welcoming, and safe. The Board of Directors’ “Statement on Governing Board Accountability for Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility” includes recommendations for leadership. The statement urges governing boards to maintain open lines of communication with the administrative leaders who are responsible for campus policies regarding campus climate, so boards can ensure that the necessary budget resources and staff assistance are available to address campus climate, diversity, inclusion, and safety needs. AGB also urges governing boards to seek direct engagement with students, faculty, staff, alumni, local communities, and other stakeholders to understand their concerns and priorities. In other words, effective communication is essential for governing boards to take appropriate action on these issues.
The tone of our current national discourse shows us at least one thing: Our colleges and universities need to produce graduates who are critical, deliberative thinkers, capable of listening to all sides of an argument before drawing conclusions, but also unafraid to speak out and express their own views.
As leaders in higher education, when free expression seems to be under attack from all sides of the political spectrum, we can set the right example by standing in the middle ground to defend it on all sides. At the end of the popular musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton remarks on the contentious election of 1800. He endorses Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr for president with these words:
I have never agreed with Jefferson once…
We have fought on 75 different fronts
But when all is said and all is done…
Jefferson has beliefs; Burr has none.
Hamilton endorses Thomas Jefferson because he knows what Jefferson believes, and he knows where Jefferson stands on the issues. And that’s what observers around the nation should know about education leaders and our position on free speech.
We stand in the middle ground, defending free speech on all sides; following truth, wherever it leads; tolerating any error, but combating error with reason; and continuing to believe in the “illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
This article is based on University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan’s remarks at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education in March. Sullivan was the keynote speaker at the Robert H. Atwell Plenary Session.