Free Speech and the Academic Mission. (Forum on Education & Academics)

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A critical function of the university to question common wisdom, investigate the unknown, and debate contentious issues. This process is how it makes knowledge and forms a consensus.

In Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993), Jonathan Rauch explains why this knowledge-making function upsets people: "It does not give a damn about your feelings and happily tramples them in the name of finding truth. It allows and -- here we should be honest -- sometimes encourages offense. Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others' beliefs, renunciation of prejudice are all good as far as they go. But as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer. Worse than that, we must inflict suffering on others."

Rauch calls those upset by the "hurtfulness" and "insensitivity" of the knowledge-making process "humanitarians." Ostensibly "compassionate," humanitarians would repress and punish people for expressing beliefs and ideas that others find unwelcome, insulting, or disturbing. This humanitarian challenge, Rauch warns, is "deadly to intellectual freedom and to the productive and peaceful pursuit of knowledge." It allows the most exquisitely sensitive to suppress whatever tweaks their subjective feelings. The "clamor" of humanitarians for "inoffensive" talk, Rauch advises, "deserves only to be ignored, never humored."

Such a clamor erupted this spring when the campus newspaper at Brown University published an ad by David Horowitz that gave "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea -- and Racist Too" (full text at http://www.frontpagemag.com/horowitzsnotepad/200l/hn01-03-01.htm). A group of students upset by the ad stole almost the entire press run of the newspaper, to keep Horowitz's ideas out of the hands, and minds, of others on campus. The theft was justified, according to protesters, because the ad was a tissue of "lies and propaganda," "insulted the Third World Community and the Greater Brown Community," and amounted to a "racist attack" and a "direct assault" on minority students.

The interim president of the university expressed the "humanitarian" attitude when she said that the ad was "deliberately and deeply hurtful," and that concerns about freedom of speech were less important than "supporting those members of the community who feel most hurt."

The ad, mind you, used no racial epithets, made clear that slavery was reprehensible and that blacks who had been enslaved had been deeply wronged. Horowitz's reasons are pretty much those of the 75 percent of Americans who also oppose reparations (according to a Time survey).

If Horowitz's ad was nothing but "lies and propaganda," refuting it should have been easy. But the protesters did not publish a rebuttal, though they were invited to do so by the editor of the newspaper. It was easier, you see, to steal newspapers than to engage in reasoned debate. This rejection of intellectual engagement (seen on many campuses during the 1990s) suggests that college students, and their mentors, are not being trained to understand or respect the principles of the knowledge-making enterprise. …