What the University of Chicago gets right about free speech

Farooq Tirmizi
Aug 26, 2016 · 3 min read

I must say I am encouraged to learn that most people I know seem to support the University of Chicago’s affirmation of free speech on campus. This article represents a counter-argument, which I found to be intellectually incoherent because it relies on a completely false premise: that a university extending an invitation to a speaker is the same as the university endorsing absolutely everything the speaker has ever written or done. Not only is this simply not true, but it would also require universities to adopt the impossible standard of having ALL students already agree with any speaker before you ever hear their ideas from them. (Of course, we know that in this world view, all students are equal, but some students are more equal than others.)

But let us, for a moment, ignore that fallacy. Let’s focus on specific examples. This author cites the case of Charles Murray visiting Virginia Tech and students not wanting him to visit. And let us also assume for the moment that the worst characterisations of Murray’s work are also true. Why should students who want to listen to his arguments be prevented from doing so? Why are the views of the students who do not want him to come to campus more important than those of the student who do want to hear him? Some of us actually went to college to hear arguments and conversations that we do not necessarily agree with. Does that not matter?

And then let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we? Because let’s be honest: it’s rarely a liberal or left-leaning speaker who faces this kind of opposition. It’s almost always a conservative or right-leaning speaker who gets booed away. Why is one ideology acceptable on campus and not another? Why are these students and professors so afraid of engaging with those ideas?

The argument I usually hear to counter this usually has something to do with power structures. Essentially, the argument goes: non-white students’ feelings matter more than white students’ feelings. I find that sentiment repugnant, but for the moment, let us accept its premise and consider just the non-white populations of colleges and universities. Why are left-leaning non-white students considered the “authentic” voice of their communities and those who lean more conservative thought of as somehow not worthy of consideration? If we are only considering non-white voices when deciding who is allowed on campus, why do non-white conservatives somehow not count?

Here’s a radical idea: you don’t like a speaker? Don’t go to their talk. You don’t like a professor? Don’t take their class. That was not my approach in college and I think I am better off for having taken classes with professors I disagreed with. But a liberal arts education does give you that choice. You can choose whichever path you like. What the University of Chicago is arguing is that you do not have the right to restrict those choices for other people.

And you really want to go to a college where offensive ideas and speakers are banned, I believe admissions at the University of Karachi are still open.

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