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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

Freedom of Speech on Campus and Outsourcing Decision-making

Do most Americans think we should have freedom of speech on college campuses? A recent survey by the University of Chicago paints an inconsistent picture.

On the one hand, most respondents think that students and professors should have the right to speak freely on campus. They agree that one major goal of the university is to support the free exchange of different ideas and values (62%). They think that state governments should not be able to restrict what professors teach (63%) and that it's unacceptable for students to disrupt public talks on campus (83%). And they think that university officials should not be able to fire professors for using offensive speech (61%).

On the other hand, most respondents also think that people being allowed to say harmful or misleading things on campus is a bigger problem than people being prevented from saying what they want (54% to 42%). In particular, most Americans think that students should be prevented from expressing sexist views (68%), expressing racist views (72%), or expressing anti-LGBTQ+ views (58%). This consensus is even stronger for what faculty can say. Most Americans think that professors should not be allowed to express sexist views (80%), racist views (81%), or anti-LGBTQ+ views (74%).

It would be difficult to reconcile these two sets of attitudes. What's wrong with state legislatures restricting faculty speech if faculty aren't allowed to say certain things? And if university officials don't have the right to fire professors for offensive speech, then how can they keep professors from expressing sexist views, something that 80% of respondents think shouldn't be allowed? Worst of all, if one of the major purposes of the university is to support the free exchange of different ideas and values, how can you then turn around and say that students are not allowed to express certain ideas and values? The ability of the human mind to hold so many contradictions at once is truly staggering.

Inconsistencies aside, what's most interesting about the results is this: people tend to support free speech in the abstract, but not speech that has been labeled as bad. In other words, people are all for speech that is uncategorized, but as soon as it bears a negative label, then they are more comfortable placing limitations on it. In my experience, people do this all the time when it comes to speech restrictions. For example, they are in favor of free speech but also completely fine with restrictions on speech labeled as hate speech.

This is an example of intellectual outsourcing. You outsource the process of sorting speech into good and bad piles to someone else, but then rely on the outputs of that process for the rest of your thinking. We outsource in this way all the time, and it's often rational. I can't tell whether the COVID vaccine reduces my likelihood of serious illness, so I outsource that question to epidemiologists. I take their word for it since they are experts, and I am not. This intellectual division of labor across humankind is probably one of our greatest achievements.

But here's the problem with outsourcing for speech: there are no experts that we can trust to sort speech properly. Part of this is due to the fact that there are no agreed-upon standards for labels like hate speech, racist speech, etc. My students are always shocked to find out that there's no legal definition of hate speech in the United States. That's simply not a legal category of speech. There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as hate speech. Further, courts have been clear that much of the speech that does count as hate speech in other countries would be perfectly legal here given First Amendment protections.

The same goes for all of the categories mentioned in the survey. What are the standards for racist speech? If a speaker claims that Black men are jailed at a higher rate than White men, is that racist? If someone wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, is that racist? If someone says that she only prefers to date Asian men, is that racist? If a professor argues that school integration was a social and legal mistake, would that be racist? If someone thinks that affirmative action is justified, isn't that racist, too? Like hate speech, there is not even a fuzzy boundary around the category of racist speech. It's entirely subjective.

But the other part of the story is the fact that even if there were agreed-upon standards for these labels, we couldn't trust any censor to apply them fairly. Mother's don't referee their son's basketball games for an obvious reason: they are likely to be partial. The same goes for anyone doing the sorting of good speech from bad speech. A member of the NRA will sort speech one way while a member of NARAL will sort it another way. A president at a conservative college like Hillsdale will sort language in a very different way than a president at a liberal college like Reed. And in each case, you can bet that the lines will be drawn in ways that favor those in the majority or those in power.

This isn't just speculation. It's empirically verifiable. Censors in Russia consider speech defending Ukraine or criticizing the "special military operation" as fake news. Censors in China delete photographs calling attention to the Tiananmen Square massacre. In every case, those in power use their authority to sort good speech from bad speech in ways that benefit them.

What all this means is that we can't just outsource the question of whether speech is sexist, racist, hateful, etc. to someone else. We have to make that call ourselves. And when the job falls to us, it becomes immediately apparent how difficult it really is.

Back to the survey, it's obvious that the questions were leading in a certain way. The questions allowed respondents to outsource the difficult task of categorizing speech as good or bad and only then asked them which should be allowed. For example, on the issue of sexist expression, the actual survey question goes as follows: "Do you think professors should be allowed or not allowed to express sexist views on campus?" For many people, that's an easy call. If the speech is sexist, we're better off without it.

My objection is that this kind of framing allows respondents to outsource the critical issue of sorting speech into sexist vs. non-sexist speech. It lets the respondent off easy. I think we would see different results had the question been posed without the intellectual outsourcing: "Do you think professors should be allowed or not allowed to express views that at least some people think are sexist on campus?" That's a much harder call. Just because someone else thinks speech is sexist doesn't mean it really is. Each of us can easily recall times when someone else thought our own speech was sexist, when we thought members of the opposing political party expressed views we thought were sexist, etc.

This is the greatest argument for free speech on campus: there are no experts we can trust to categorize speech as either good or bad. For that reason, none of us should have the power to censor the speech of someone else.

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