Academics and freedom of speech

The First Amendment of the US constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The purpose of a constitution (ably explained in one of my favorite books) is  to protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of power. The First Amendment thus protects (among other topics listed above) the right of citizens to speak (or write) freely.

I am a free-speech absolutist, in the sense of saying whatever you want, on any topic. I agree with the common exceptions to this freedom, except when it comes to obscenity (there, I am with Carlin).

America’s constitutional rights stop (in theory) at its borders, and governments elsewhere regulate the speech in different ways. In Germany, you cannot say many things (Nazi stuff is a famous example, as this American recently found out). In Russia, you cannot call war, “war.” In China, you cannot compare Xi to his look-alike.

On university campuses, freedom of speech is subject to different rules, since staff and students are “members of a community.” Those freedoms have been in the news recently, and I want to give my opinion as to why it’s news and how to fix the problem.

Hamas attacked from Gaza on 7 Oct 2022, killing over 1,000 Israelis (2/3rds of them civilians) in an unprecedented act of terrorism.

Side note: I am totally aware of the tension between Israel’s claims of progressive democracy and its treatment of the Palestinians (I am a “two-state solution” kinda guy), but I do not condone terrorism. America (with its religious nuts supporting the settlers), the Arab world (with its hypocrisies), and the Palestinian Authority (with its massive corruption) have really screwed over the Palestinian people, but that’s no excuse for terrorism.

Anyway, the reason we’re here is to talk about freedom of speech on universities, and the example that got everyone’s attention was the 7 October statement by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, which held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Thirty-three student groups at Harvard co-signed that statement. Remember that this was before Israel began its retributions and invasion of Gaza, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians.

So the context is that Harvard’s administration tolerated THAT speech, in contrast to a lot of OTHER speech that Harvard has NOT tolerated. (FIRE may be biased, but facts are facts.) And Harvard is not alone.

So we’re talking about hypocrisy — your speech is bad, my speech is good — rather than anything close to a level playing field in how elite (private) universities handle topics that are favored by the left/hated by the right.

Related: This article points out that politicians — unable to regulate speech at private universities — are attacking speech at public universities, which they should not do. Elite media, such as the New York Times, are also suffering from hypocrisy, in terms of whose opinions are allowed and — worse — in terms of their news reporting. Read “When the New York Times lost its way.”

So, what “we” (Americans, but also citizens in the free world) risk here is a decay in our right to free speech, as various authorities “protect” us from “harmful” speech. That path, as Benjamin Franklin warned in 1722 (!), will deliver neither liberty nor safety.*

So, to recap: One side killed a bunch of people on the other side. Students spoke in favor of the killers, without condemnation from campus administrators who have shut down speech from the other side. I disagree with that history of censorship, since all sides should be able to speak.

So how did we get “here”? How did US academics become tolerant of one kind of speech but not another?

Whelp — it’s time to blame the mathematicians. No, the economists. No,  it’s the politicians (again) — as in the university politicians, or administrators (super insightful read).

Let me spell it out…

There’s been a huge interest in pushing students to study STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) over the past decade or so, often motivated by economic analyses that show STEM graduates getting more jobs at higher pay than graduates from other majors — especially the humanities (history, philosophy, cultural studies, languages, etc.)

IMO, the statistics are twice flawed. First, as every economist (should) know, the purpose of life is not about maximizing earnings, but happiness (“utils”), which can come from the things money buys but also what you do, who you work and socialize with, where you live, and so on. Money is very important for poor people, but college graduates in rich countries earn more than non-college graduates and are WAY better off than most people in poorer countries. Second, initial earnings do not always correlate with lifetime earnings. Liberal arts students (I teach at a lib arts college) do quite well in later years, for example.

But administrators are not that imaginative, and they — like most bureaucrats — can over-react in counterproductive (high-modernist) ways, as James C. Scott pointed out — so they started to favor STEM majors over other majors — and especially the “poor” humanities. Professors in the humanities decided that their best option was not to double down on what they were good at (building great intellects) but to engage in campus politics, i.e., to claim that they represented underprivileged groups, that they would make amends for colonialism, that they could fix racism, that they — and only they — could make the administrators look good to a public that worried about inequality, injustice, and… a host of other social ills — a series of steps described in that insightful read mentioned above.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a fan of racism, inequality, and all that, but it’s not like these problems are easy to fix or new (“the poor you will always have among you“). I’ve traveled in 100+ countries, and even quick solutions take more than a century to work.

So now we have administrators backing false prophets (not all professors of humanities, but enough of them) presenting over-simplified theories that cannot survive contact with reality (go Marx!) to idealistic students who live in post-modern bubbles where parents/loans pay the rent. I really love my students, and the passion they bring to many topics, but I also remind them (time and again) that I, as a professor, am not qualified to tell them about the real world that they will enter into, after 16+ years of schooling — a real world where nobody cares about your positionality, where nobody cares about your grades, a world where “diversity” means the working poor, the migrants, the less-educated — and especially the people whose politics they don’t just detest, but don’t understand. In that real world, “transdisciplinarity” means you get safe, tasty food made from ingredients coming from multiple producers; it means that your house doesn’t fall down; it means that there is a medical system that keeps you alive for twice as long as your (great-) grandparents. In the real world, nobody gives a shit about your major. In the real world you are a person, not a major, and what matters is how well you work with others.

So don’t pretend that your speech is more important than theirs.

The bottom line is that the failure to support real freedom of speech on campus — and real discussions about real human issues — boils down to another version of academics putting their theories ahead of reality, which will ruin us all.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to a mathematician who grew up in the USSR before migrating to teach in the US:

“I grew up in the Soviet Union, where people had to affirm their fealty to ideals, and the leaders embodying those ideals, on a daily basis,” he told me. “As years went by, I observed the remarkable ease with which passionate communists turned first into passionate pro-Western liberals and then into passionate nationalists. This lived experience and also common sense convince me that only true conformists excel in this game.


“The main responsibility of every Soviet citizen was to facilitate the arrival of communism, where people would contribute to the society according to their abilities and receive from the society according to their needs—has there ever been a nobler-sounding goal? And yet historians cannot agree on an estimate of how many millions of people were starved to death, tortured to death, or worked to death, all in the name of that goal.”

Speak freely, everyone on everything, if you want to live together and overcome the dangers that threaten all of us.

*I am not quoting Franklin’s 1755 statement (“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”), which was about paying taxes to fund defense (!) but this statement from 33 years earlier:

In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech … Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man …

Addenda (14 Jan): Substack could not decide between free speech and “community,” so now  people are unhappy.  Read this brutal takedown of dishonest universities.

Addendum (25 Jan): Good discussion on “the freedom to speak your mind” with the president of Wesleyan.


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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Academics and freedom of speech”

  1. David:

    Thanks, you posted this on my 75th birthday. In Yoda fashion, “getting old I am.” By the way, I did enjoy answering some of your students. I use to do this in high schools too and bring product from Oscar Mayer. If someone asked a question, I would give them a Lunchable, etc. Talking Supply Chain, you have to have incentives. Talked to 4th year econ-students at Loyola too. The high school students were fun. The 4th year asked some questions and I answered. Talked much about my travels through Asia and how to be humble and not be the Ugly American.

    I am going to post this commentary at Angry Bear. They may go wild and they may not. This is a freedom of speech discussion and not the slaughter of the innocents. Although one wrong does not make another wrong legit. In 69 and I was with 2nd Marine Division stuck on base for the weekend in case we had to ship out to Israel.

    Feel free to come by and talk. I moderate everything and in a mild manner. I want people to talk.

    1. Hey Bill — I’m only 20 years behind you!

      Thank you very much for engaging with students. It’s good to have another adult in the room.

      Thanks for cross-posting. I just looked and there were no comments, so please DO ping me if something “gets hot”

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