Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Science of Free Speech

Donald Downs writes on the NAS blog about measuring violations of free speech on campus (Scroll down to his Feb 6 entry). Downs offers three theories:
1) his own, which is pessimistic about higher education and the deep extent of political correctness
2) the rosy left-wing view that right-wing critics are simply cherry-picking anecdotes
3) the idea that PC was bad, but it was a fad that passed.

My view, which is detailed in my book Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (which will be published in August 2007 by Paradigm Publishers) is more nuanced eccentric. On the one hand, I argue that the PC threat is overblown (as I did in my book The Myth of Political Correctness).. Historically, free speech on campus has always been suppressed, but rarely publicized. Free speech is safer today on campus than ever before, precisely because groups like FIRE draw so much attention to violations. That being said, free speech is far from perfect on college campuses, and it needs to be improved. My critique of the right-wing attacks on higher education is that they ignore the suppression of left-wing speech which is common on college campuses, and that (like David Horowitz), they see the repression of leftist academic freedom as a key solution to the “problem” of oppressed conservatives.

But Downs is right to point out that we don’t have a serious statistical approach to campus speech restrictions, although our anecdote collection is getting much better. Even Gould’s study of speech codes is far from comprehensive, and tells us nothing about how they’re being enforced.

Therefore, a study of free speech in academia needs to do two key things: 1) document the regulations on speech by analyzing the actual codes and how they have changed over time; 2) document the enforcement of speech codes by filing FOIAs and requests for reports on how many students and faculty have been accused/investigated/punished and under what provisions of a code. This kind of information would not resolve the debate, but it would add a great deal of information. Then we need to develop a model code for colleges to adopt that protects free speech and academic freedom on campus and addresses the problems of all these badly-written codes.

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