We’ve heard a lot about campus free speech lately, or the lack thereof. From federal judges heckled at Stanford to speakers shut down at Yale, to various other controversies all over America, the dominant trend on campus seems to be to treat any opposing idea or speech as an act of violence. Ideas with which one disagrees are shunned as dangerous, even threatening—though as a friend observes, anyone who thinks words are violence has never been punched in the mouth.

This behavior is wrong, and we are beginning to see some positive responses from administrators at some schools. After the Stanford debacle, Jenny S. Martinez, the dean of the law school, published a strong and lengthy defense of free speech, including the announcement that all students will attend a seminar on free expression. At Cornell, President Martha Pollock and Provost Michael Kotlikoff recently shot down an effort by the student assembly to require “trigger warnings” in all classes. As the pair wrote,

Academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle in higher education, establishes the right of faculty members to determine what they teach in their classrooms and how they teach it, provided that they behave in a manner consistent with professional ethics and competence, and do not introduce controversial matters unrelated to the subject of their course.

But far too often, university administrators adopt a supine posture towards, and are even complicit in, student hostility to disagreeable ideas. The notion that hearing unwelcome ideas is somehow harmful to students seems to be taken for granted. But in fact it shouldn’t be, and to see why, it’s worth revisiting a 1986 book by the (then) law professor Lee Bollinger. (Bollinger is now the president of Columbia University and will retire at the end of this academic year.)

That book is The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America. In it, Bollinger lays out a case for free speech that seems particularly applicable on campus, especially now.

The centerpiece of Bollinger’s book is the planned 1977 National Socialist Party of America march in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie was a heavily Jewish suburb whose inhabitants included a substantial number of Holocaust survivors. Unsurprisingly, many were upset, offended, and even frightened by the planned march, and many legal efforts were made to stop it. Yet the Nazis, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, prevailed in the courts, successfully arguing that those legal efforts, which included three different ordinances specifically intended to frustrate their ability to march, violated their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution, as they surely did. (After winning in Skokie, the Nazis, who I suppose figured they had made their point, marched elsewhere instead.)

Noting that the societal value of Nazi speech is low, Bollinger wonders why we permit such things.

Noting that the societal value of Nazi speech is low, Bollinger wonders why we permit such things. Finding existing First Amendment theories incomplete, he posits another reason: we allow objectionable speech because having to tolerate such speech exercises the muscles of tolerance and helps us to build a “tolerant mind.”

By tolerating the most extreme speech—even when it advocates nonsense—we develop the habit of tolerating speech that is objectionable in some respects but worth engaging on its own merits. Bollinger writes:

To see free speech as concerned not just with protecting the activity of speech but with the reaction to that activity, and to the personal values reflected in those reactions, changes considerably our idea of the ends served by the principle. We have already seen the range of importance to the community of learning to exercise self-restraint toward behavior found offensive or threatening. It seeks to induce a way of thinking that is relevant to a variety of social interactions, from the political to the professional. Significantly, this perspective sees the social benefits of free speech as  involving not simply the acquisition of the truth but the development of intellectual attitudes, which are important to the operation of a variety of social institutions—the spirit of compromise basic to our politics and the capacity to distance ourselves from our beliefs, which is so important to various disciplines and professional roles

It also promises a benefit we can all feel, individually as well as collectively, of avoiding the burdens that the impulse to intolerance can impose on us, or that through it we impose on ourselves. To escape its demands or, more accurately, to reduce the power of its grip, to become the master of the fears and doubts that drive us to slay the specter of bad thoughts, is an achievement of the first magnitude.

Allowing space for ideas we hate and ideas propounded by people we are inclined to hate not only trains our mind to refrain from lashish out reflexively at unwelcome arguments, it more importantly frees us from the compulsion to do so. And freedom from that compulsion is not only good for free speech, it is also good for the soul. Bollinger quotes Justice Louis Brandeis’s dissent in Whitney v. California (1927): “Men feared witches and burned women, and it is the function of [free] speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

Bollinger concludes:

Under the general tolerance function, free speech is not concerned exclusively with the preservation of a freedom to do whatever we wish, or with the advancement of truth or democracy as those terms are generally used, but with the development of a capacity of mind, with a way of thinking.

A spirit of tolerance means that others can’t yank your chain simply by propounding ideas you don’t like.

It’s worth adding that habitual emotions and actions are self-reinforcing. Get consumed with anger at “wrong” ideas once, and you will probably be consumed more easily the next time, and the time after that. Practice self-restraint and you will likely become more capable over time. (It’s called “practicing” self-restraint for a reason.)

This is a wonderful theory, and it offers useful guidance not only for colleges and law schools, but also for society at large. And the top comment to the New York Times story on the Stanford Law debacle (covered at length in the Notes & Comments of April 2023), as noted by the retired Wisconsin Law professor Ann Althouse on her blog, captures its benefits perfectly:

In 1969 I was a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland. Members of the American Nazi Party were allowed to visit the school and present their point of view that the Holocaust had not happened. The event was held after school in the cafeteria, and expectations for students who chose to attend were made absolutely clear to us by the principal. We were to be respectful at all times; we were not to interrupt the speakers; anything we had to say could be said in the q&a afterwards.

Those of us who attended prepared ourselves extremely well and did as we had been directed. During the presentation we took notes, sat on our hands, kept our mouths shut, and did not interrupt the speakers in any way. Then afterwards in the q&a we absolutely shredded them. When they left, they knew they had been soundly trounced by a bunch of high school history geeks.

It was a very valuable experience to me, and a lesson that ideas, no matter how vile, should be argued, defended, and defeated in public.

Althouse adds:

Today, there’s this notion that the young people would be injured by having to hear bad speech, but these kids had an energizing, uplifting, sublimely memorable experience.

Yes, humiliating Nazis with your learning and knowledge is true empowerment, of a sort not to be found in persuading administrators to silence them.

But of course Althouse is right: nowadays those administrators refer to speech as “harmful” or “violent.” Such labels cause students to feel that they are in danger and must be protected from the speech in question. Teaching people that hostile speech is something they have the resources to overcome on their own is far more empowering than teaching that they must be protected by their elders from ideas they cannot cope with by themselves.

So why, exactly, do these administrators behave as they do? Their behavior is a disservice to their institutions and their students, a fundamental betrayal of their own responsibilities. Of course, what they get out of it is vastly increased power—they now can control what’s said on their campuses—and, at least as significant, a feeling of importance. If they stood back and let their students confront unwelcome ideas largely on their own, they would feel irrelevant (though they would not be, in actuality); but if they pose as saviors of their students, protecting them from Nazis and such, why, they’re practically heroes! And many people want to be heroes, especially, I suspect, those academic administrators who are unlikely ever to do anything that is actually heroic (and who, deep down, probably know that).

But here’s where the tale becomes something of a tragedy. Bollinger published The Tolerant Society in 1986 to considerable acclaim. He followed it up with additional books and scholarship on this theme. He also rose in the academic world: for well over two decades now, he has been the president of Columbia University.

Columbia must be a paragon of free speech and tolerance, we might conclude, embodying the ideas set out in The Tolerant Society.

If only. In fact, as a recent Fox News headline declared, “Columbia University ranks dead last in nation for college free speech: Columbia University was the only school in the country to receive an ‘abysmal’ rating.” In the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s annual survey of college free speech, polling over forty-five thousand students at over two hundred different institutions, Columbia University finished last, scoring 9.1 out of 100 for a rating of “abysmal”—a performance that is, indeed, abysmal. The University of Chicago ranked first for free speech, though even Chicago scored only 77.92 out of 100. The nationwide picture was grim:

The vast majority of students, at 63 percent, surveyed for the study reported feeling worry over damaging their reputation based on someone else misunderstanding them, and 22 percent of the more than 44,500 students surveyed said they often self-censor.

In Columbia’s case, at least, one would have expected the author of The Tolerant Society to have established, well, a tolerant campus. But no. Why might that be?

A lengthy recent profile in Tablet tells us that Bollinger’s tenure as president started out along Tolerant Society lines, as when he allowed the Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak but offered a highly critical introduction, stressing that the event was proof of Columbia’s openness rather than any admirable qualities on the part of Ahmadinejad. But soon after, Bollinger faded away into the more typical pastimes of Ivy League university presidents: real-estate deals and global funding efforts. The sad result of his twenty-one-year tenure was that, while Bollinger was busy bulldozing city blocks previously home to low-income minorities in order to construct Columbia’s Manhattanville campus and pursuing Davos-friendly initiatives that assured the rich and the academic of their rightful place in ruling the world, tolerance ceased to be a priority at Columbia. Bollinger became, in other words, a standard-issue university administrator. (A non-standard administrator might have concern for his institution’s soul. The standard ones are more concerned about having a second conference center.)

For a scholar such as myself, this is depressing. We write what we write at least in part because we hope it will inform people, perhaps even help them to be better people or better leaders. And yet here is an eminent scholar whose acclaimed scholarship wasn’t even capable of helping him to be a better person or leader. I’d like for there to be a positive moral to this story, but for my part the only lesson is never to accept an administrative position.

There is much for us to learn from the idea of exercising the muscles of tolerance.

But if Bollinger’s actions aren’t consistent with his theory, that doesn’t mean the theory is bad. There is much for us to learn from the idea of exercising the muscles of tolerance, on both an individual and a societal level. “Use it or lose it,” as the bodybuilders say, and we have every reason to think that our societal tolerance muscles have grown rather flabby in recent years.

It’s time for some heavy lifting.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 41
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