politics, free speech, and academic freedom


Trump on Twitter; Kathy Griffin, Stephen Colbert, and Johnny Depp’s remarks about Trump; academics being threatened or losing their jobs for political statements; academics being threatened or losing their jobs for making racist or similarly inappropriate comments online; conservative speakers having their campus talks either disrupted or cancelled due to security concerns: what do all these things have in common?

I’m going to say next to nothing. Well, they are all subjects of media reporting and social media “conversation” in the last six months. Ok, maybe that’s not totally fair. They all generally are conversations about what “free” means in free speech or academic freedom. What the limits are or should be. So a few obvious things (or at least things that should be obvious).

  1. The first amendment protection of free speech has to do with limiting the ability of the government to restrain speech. I say limited as we all know there are kinds of speech that are not protected (e.g. yelling fire in a theater; computer virus codes). Sometimes it seems important to distinguish between this legal right and general cultural values about free speech.
  2. Academic freedom. One could look at the AAUP statement. The thing with academic freedom is that you’ve got to convince a dissertation committee that your work is valid, then a hiring committee that gives you a tenure track job, editors and reviewers of academic journals and presses, grant funding agencies, and tenure and promotion committees. You don’t just get to say anything you want and keep your job. Also academic freedom is basically bounded by the contours of one’s area of research and teaching.
  3. The typical thing that gets said about college campuses is that they are a place for open investigation and discussion. Sure they are… as is your home, your workplace, your church/temple/etc., and so on. On a college campus, as with any social space, there are rhetorical and discursive structures that shape what may be said, how it may be said, when it may be said, and who might say it. It would be far more accurate to say that colleges and academic disciplines are institutions designed to construct and communicate knowledge according to particular sets of evolving methods and genres.

But you probably already knew those things, so what is the role of the university and academic disciplines in democratic, political discourse? The short answer to this is that they promote an open discussion of political issues within the bounds of established academic genres and discourses. Clearly there are occasional disruptions to these boundaries, such as student protests, that are accepted within other legal limits. However, there are many speech acts that are protected from government restrictions by the first amendment that would be and are prohibited with the bounds of university/disciplinary practices: these range from getting in a profane shouting match in a classroom to plagiarizing or fabricating test results. Universities–like churches, workplaces, shopping malls, and social media websites–get to establish those boundaries for themselves. Of course that doesn’t mean they won’t get embroiled in larger political debates when they do so.

The prevailing idea about free speech is that, in public, you can say just about anything you want… and people can reply however they want. You can be bullied, attacked, vilified, and even threatened to a fairly extreme point without laws being broken. We can fill the internet with this kind of crap; in fact, we have. While protection against government restrictions on free speech are crucial for our democracy, this does not mean that other kinds of discourse communities cannot or should not restrict expression. Free speech never really worked the way we say it should now. Prior to the rise of social media, we basically always lived in such spaces: your own home, other’s homes, your workplace, offices, stores, malls, churches, etc. Even in physical public spaces like post offices, parks, courthouses, town halls, and so on, there are rules that limit expression.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, we don’t have an established rhetorical practice for social media communication. I doubt there can be a single one-fits-all practice that would work for all of the 2 billion people on Facebook for example.  It probably says something about our fantasies regarding rhetoric and language that we would believe such a thing is achievable.

Certainly I’m not interested in getting into the business of telling other people what they should or shouldn’t say or even insisting that universities or disciplines act one way rather than another.  In my reading, what I do see time and again are academics who appear to expect their online audiences to respond to their statements in the same way that academic communities do and/or that do not fully anticipate what that broader audience might be or how they might respond or make use of what that academic has said. And who could really fault them for that? These things can be complicated and unpredictable, and it can be tough to ask people to always be so guarded and circumspect, to make every statement online as if it were going to be subject to blind peer review.

My general response though is not to make the “free speech” or “academic freedom” argument. I think the problem lies in not understanding the rhetorical operation of digital media. I’m not suggesting at all that that’s a response that can work in the context of these heated political exchanges. But I do think it’s worth further investigation. My sense of this ultimately is that rather than saying social media is “broken” in some way because rhetoric doesn’t function like we think it should that we need to be able to recognize that social media reveals faults in our understanding of rhetoric. Of course, that revelation about rhetoric doesn’t mean that social media isn’t also broken. But it does mean that a reconception of the media-technological operation of rhetoric would be an important first step to developing new social media applications and practices.