There’s No College P.C. Crisis: In Defense of Student Protesters
Unacknowledged here is the obvious: That students have very little direct power on the contemporary American campus. Administrators have lots of power. Trustees have lots of power. Faculty have quite a bit. But students have very little. And so a call to resolve campus disagreements by reasoned debate is a call to allow the people who have been setting the rules to continue to set the rules. Students understand this, and that’s why they have little patience for decorum. It’s why activists sometimes yell at professors. (And why the professors typically stay calm when yelled at.) It’s why activists make demands — because the power to change the university directly isn’t theirs to wield.
I’m not saying that students should have the power to fire college presidents and remake curricula at will. (Not quite.) But I am saying that a “free speech” argument that ignores power — an argument that says “let the best debater win” without acknowledging that being the best debater is not, for students, a path to victory — is not an argument that any student activist will, or should, find convincing.
Claims that student activists are trampling on free-speech rights are, as we’ve seen, frequently overblown. But to the extent that activists see free-speech arguments as, as Jelani Cobb wrote recently in the New Yorker, a “diversion,” it’s largely a reflection of the constant use of “free speech” as a weapon against legitimate agitation by critics who don’t understand that a student protest and a debating society are two different things.
Those of us who would have today’s student activists embrace free-speech principles, rather than grudgingly tolerate them, need to defend the activists’ free-speech rights. When they are punished for marching, we must defend their right to march. When they say things we think are stupid, we must defend their right to say them. When they yell, we must defend their right to yell — even at professors, and especially at professors who are saying things we find sensible. When they engage in behavior that pushes at the boundaries of acceptable speech, we must remember that pushing at boundaries is what the First Amendment, and the university, are for.
When student activists advocate policies that would, if implemented, compromise essential free-speech guarantees — punishing fellow students for constitutionally protected speech, for instance — their proposals are worthy of pushback. But if we are really committed to preserving a climate of rigorous, robust disputation on campus, we have to commit to defending students’ right to agitate for what they believe in — which means distinguishing speech we find obnoxious from acts that threaten free expression itself. We have to stop screaming “censor” every time a student says a challenging thing in a challenging way, and we have to start rebuking those who do.
If the critics of the current student movement continue to reflexively demonize students’ speech, tactics and demands as hostile to free-speech principles, students will continue to tune those critics out — and rightly so. Today’s campus activists are raising urgent questions about the proper character of the university, initiating debates that will only grow broader and more important as the campus movement continues to develop. Their ideas deserve supportive engagement, not dismissal.