Freedom of Speech at St. Lawrence University

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

(Remarks at the Board of Trustees meeting, Oct. 21, 2017) 

Issues of the day in higher education abound, overlap, and impinge on our future: external economic forces, curricular relevancy, social capital’s acceleration, diversity and inclusion, campus safety, athletic activity, financial aid resources and student debt levels. All of these topics receive frequent public attention. None are easy to understand, manage, or explain. None are perhaps more complicated and difficult than the topic of free speech, a principle in our American society that has an important and peculiar place in the academy.

I wish to share a condensed version of my “midterm notes” on freedom of speech at St. Lawrence. I do so, not because we are now facing a critical test of the issue or that we should anticipate one anytime soon as our turn to witness a dramatic clash of resistant mutual polarities, though if such disruptive moments can occur at sister liberal arts colleges, we have no grounds to claim an exemption. There are, naturally, currents of discussion on campus about freedom of speech, more frequently and intensively than in prior years. This is a sign of the times and requires all of us to think together about its nature and how perceptions of free speech are bending.

Freedom of speech is a difficult issue for at least three reasons: the times are divisive and controversial; emotions that are often raw usually sweep the head away from the heart like a flash flood; and the philosophical framework and distinctions about rights and principles are often lacking in clarity or tolerance for ambiguity. The paradox that incivility and free speech must co-exist together, that free speech may have no prerequisite of politeness, a realization that sometimes causes excruciating personal pain, is extremely difficult in an institution so deeply committed to building a positive community.

My abiding hope is that our students grasp a significant probability of their lives: that it’s highly unlikely that they will ever again live in a place and community like this one, and that somehow this campus and its liberal arts experience become their guiding-star for getting it right in community life; that this lasting impression of a good community will travel with them in their careers and future homes.

I am coming to terms with anchor beliefs of my life that are no longer self-evident to others. The liberal arts philosophy itself has been questioned and even rejected by some smart people. The dismissive word “irrelevant” was popular in the ’60s and ’70s, but I never imagined it might one day include habits of learning that make life so intrinsically happy. Nevertheless, we can’t take for granted that the liberal arts are unassailable.

Similarly, the First Amendment is also receiving not only fresh measures of scrutiny, but also skepticism; its future may not be in doubt, but it may change. A 2015 Pew Research Center finding was that 40 percent of millennials think the government should be allowed to suppress speech that is potentially offensive, particularly to minority groups. By comparison, only 12 percent of their grandparents would be comfortable with such government regulation of speech. In 2016, a Gallup study discovered that 78 percent of traditional-age students believe colleges should expose them to all kinds of differing perspectives. And yet, 69 percent went on to say that they favored limitations on campus speech that slurred or offended others. More than half of these young people in the survey also contended that the charged atmosphere on campus prevents some people from speaking up and speaking out, a hesitancy born of fear that they would risk social standing or a hostile backlash.

I ask myself some questions in the context of national data: have our St. Lawrence students concluded that civility, which ought to be everyone’s preference, also requires some added institutional guard or protection from controversial ideas? So far, I don’t believe there is such a demand on our campus. Are people on campus adept enough at weighing and distinguishing the competing tensions that exist between equality and freedom?  There is a mix of views about this at St. Lawrence.

On other campuses, an argument has gone forward that rights of free speech are at odds with equality, and that equality ought to get the edge in the end. The logical extension of this line is that because the “marketplace of ideas,” to use the term coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, falsely assumes fairness of trade, the marketplace is flawed with an unfair tilt. They would argue the necessity to correct this imbalance; that we should not tolerate speech that risks insidious harm to minority groups historically kept silent. This is the origin of “speech codes” that have become a whipping post that taints all of academe. We do not have such restrictive policies at St. Lawrence. I am not hearing from individual advocates who favor doing so, though I assume some at St. Lawrence may entertain this option.

A question i am sometimes asked hypothetically is about the special circumstances of outside speakers and, in particular, would there ever be reason to “disinvite” someone from speaking? I would be opposed in near-absolute terms to taking action that would prohibit a high-risk provocative speaker from our campus, though as a private institution we have the right to decide the question in ways that are not always the same for public universities.

The First Amendment is a boulder-like touchstone, but I said if presented with a choice of accommodating a challenging, disturbing speaker or not, I was in the “near-absolute” camp. The First Amendment protects speech; it does not protect violence as a surrogate of speech. I recognize that hate speech takes the question to the brink of an activity resembling violence. And while there is no bright line of discernment or unequivocal definition, there are guiding principles, though I also believe there is a line somewhere, as Holmes once argued in his compelling ideas about “clear and present danger.”

College presidents today must think about an analogous question of institutional “security” as the boundaries of “clear and present danger.” As a private institution, we have every right, for instance, of refusing space and voice to outside groups to demonstrate on our campus, especially if we have determined likely harm to capital assets and violence to people. We extend those rights of protest and demonstration on campus, however, to our own community members, but with an expectation of non-violence and the hope of peaceable civility. We would probably be somewhat damaged without the latter, but we would survive.

In many ways the shape of the First Amendment at St. Lawrence appears very healthy, in our curriculum, our University governance, and in our campus culture, but I would not say we are out of the woods in our effort to avoid traps, such as the false dichotomy between freedom of speech and the priority values of inclusion. In fact, it feels like we’ve just entered the woods both as a society and as a liberal arts university.

The admonition that Justice Holmes made at the end of his life was the imperative call to a principle of free thought, whereby he also came down unusually hard in his attachment to a particular form of freedom: yes, the freedom of thought and expression, but without exclusions—“not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.”—WLF

President William L. Fox '75