Is There a Moral Panic Over Campus Speech?

A crowd of people walks along a campus street.
Demonstrators participate in the “March for Change” protest led by Clemson University football players on June 13 in Clemson, South Carolina.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As part of the ongoing Free Speech Project, Future Tense editorial director Andrés Martinez invited Robby Soave, associate editor at Reason; Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences at Arizona State University; and Sabine Galvis, a 2020 graduate of ASU who served as the executive editor of the student newspaper the State Press, to talk on Slack about rising concerns (and rising pushback to those concerns) about eroding tolerance for free speech on college campuses across America, and throughout society.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrés: Pardis, shortly after President Donald Trump’s bizarre Fourth of July rant at Mount Rushmore against a “new far-left fascism,” you told me this was the latest sign of a “moral panic” around the question of a supposed erosion of free speech in this country. Soon after, a letter published in Harper’s, authored by an eclectic, mostly liberal mix of public intellectuals (including Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick), also expressed concern over what they considered a “restriction of debate” on the left (while making it clear that Donald Trump is a bigger threat). How do you see things in this fraught year of 2020? Is this the golden age of free speech in the U.S., or do you worry about where we’re headed?

Pardis: I vacillate between worry and hope.

Across the country, debates about the campus culture wars have been mired in anxieties about free speech, academic freedom, and the perceived lack of resiliency of millennials characterized as the proliferation of “snowflake culture.” Indeed, institutions of higher education have been seen as the battleground for a determination of American values and Americanness. Students, like those Trump addressed at the Dream City Church in Phoenix recently, are seen as the foot soldiers.

These discursive trends reveal a modern-day moral panic about youth gone astray and are contributing to an identity crisis in higher education, rather than helping to alleviate it. Like other moral panics, the narrative around higher education in 2020 is based largely on assumptions. This is not unlike other moral panics that have preceded this one—reefer madness in the 1930s, moral panics about sexuality during the sexual revolution. But rather than seeing protesting and engaged students on campuses today as morally astray, it is more useful to understand their actions in the context of a desire to reform higher education, address the identity crisis, and bring more dialogue about values into the classroom and higher ed writ large.

Andrés: I know you have studied in great depth questions of inclusion and academic freedom on campuses across the country, but before we get into that, do you think there is a distinction between how free speech debates play out on campus versus the rest of society?

Pardis: I think that the debates are playing out on campus but they mirror what is happening in society today.

I do think that we need to be worried about free speech, but we need to be clearer about what our worries are. Students want more freedom to speak and to experiment. Simply put, they want the freedom to be wrong sometimes, too. But they want more speech, rather than less. And the moral panic seems to be casting students as snowflakes who want to be free from speech.

Andrés: I do wonder if there isn’t a generational shift, though, in how we think of disagreeable speech that makes us uncomfortable. In one of my journalism classes a couple of years back, most of my students said it would be reasonable to ban what they considered controversial speakers (such as Trump administration officials) from campus. The one student in class who felt strongly that any invited speaker should be heard was a Russian journalist here on a State Department exchange. It was pretty funny, as he was like, “But this is America.” So I wonder what you mean when you say students want the freedom to be wrong sometimes, too—because that seems to be what the folks in the moral panic school are saying, too.

Pardis: So, I think that students want the space (which some derisively chide as “safe spaces”) to wrestle with these difficult issues. They want to be able to try out new words, frameworks, phrasing. But they want to feel safe to do that. They don’t want to be called out for saying the wrong thing. So our job in higher ed is to create networks of belonging where students can feel like they belong and are being heard, but where they can dig into the challenging issues

Andrés: Robby, for much of our history, it was the left that worried about the right restricting debate and speech, and now there is this concern about political correctness on the left leading to an erosion of speech. Sitting at the libertarian citadel of Reason, do you feel there has been a shift in terms of where the threat lies, or do the threats to speech continue to come from all sides? What worries you most these days?

Robby: I think one of the difficulties in discussing these issues is scale. Certainly, there has been plenty of catastrophizing coming from people on the political right. We are told that the campus free speech problem is a crisis, political correctness is the worst it’s ever been, young people hate free speech, that sort of thing. There are enough examples—many of them quite egregious!—that if you’re looking to demonstrate that this is the case, there are things you can point to. Some promote this narrative while ignoring the very real threats to free speech posed by the government and specifically the Trump administration.

All that said, it does appear to me to be the case that culturally speaking, a climate of self-censorship has taken shape in many elite progressive social circles, college campuses being the first and most obvious.

It is not universal, there is still plenty of interesting dialogue happening. But some students, and indeed some professors—many who are themselves on the political left—do seem to run into trouble when they discuss certain topics, often relating to race or sex. And that trouble is usually caused by a small number of ideologically motivated students whose view of free speech is that they essentially have a right not to be offended.

Pardis: I don’t disagree that people are self-censoring—but I think that folks on the right and left are frustrated with self-censorship.

Robby: That I would heartily agree with. I hear all the time from professors who represent the “old” left, ACLU types, and are increasingly frustrated by their students—not all of them, but the small number of unreasonable ones who demand a lot of attention and appeasement.

Andrés: Sabine, you just graduated from ASU, where you were the executive editor of the State Press newspaper. Congrats (and how you managed all that in a time of pandemic, is a separate question for another day). What’s your take on us older folks speculating on your generation’s views on free speech and your “slowflakeiness”?

Sabine: If anything, I think political correctness is generally asking for more thoughtful speech. While there are some egregious examples, as Robby said, of people who may take it to an extreme, I think that does not represent youth and students at large.

But what is being called snowflakeiness is really a push for public figures to be accountable for speech that members of the public (largely, but not exclusively, made up of Gen Z and millennials) see as being bigoted, harmful, or simply incorrect. There is a demand for accountability that can gain traction very quickly and organically.
In general, I think this kind of criticism can be seen as adding to the discourse, as a counterpoint to whatever offensive statements are made, which really affirms free speech. After all, free speech never called for freedom from criticism and consequences.

Pardis: I would agree with that, Sabine. I think that the phrase “political correctness,” though, has also been taken out of context and triggers moral panic.

Sabine: It’s a catchphrase, like the term “snowflake,” that’s made it easier at times to malign the intentions of youth and students.

Andrés: Were there speakers who came to campus in your years at ASU that you felt shouldn’t have had the right/opportunity to speak?

Sabine: I think the most controversial speaker I can remember is Carl Goldberg, who was brought to campus by College Republicans United, a far-right political club at ASU. A number of groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have criticized Goldberg for misrepresenting Islam and being Islamophobic, while the Southern Poverty Law Center described him as an “anti-Islam lecturer.” CRU set up the event as a discussion between Goldberg and the Muslim Students Association, who invited a local imam to provide a counter perspective. I don’t think there’s any need to give space to bigoted speech on campus, and the event created a false equivalency between the two speakers, given that Goldberg is heavily prejudiced against Islam and promotes Islamophobia. The interesting thing is that CRU said in an email at the time that “Press is NOT welcome to attend the event,” which is a hypocritical stance from a group that claims to love freedom.

Robby: I mean, it’s very difficult coming up with a precise term to describe the range of examples we’re usually talking about—from, say, Ben Shapiro getting shouted down at a college campus to data guy David Shor being fired from his job. “Cancel culture” seems to be the term that is currently winning.

Andrés: Robby, you’ve done some great reporting on some of the more disconcerting episodes on campus, but as you also say, there is a question of scale and how prevalent these episodes really are. Columbia President and First Amendment scholar Lee Bollinger had a powerful essay in the Atlantic last year saying this is far less of an epidemic than is sometimes suggested.

To shift gears a bit: You are working on a book about content moderation on social media. Do you feel that what we see online is analogous to the campus debates, and whether you are worried about a decline of free speech online? (Seems like many people fret about the opposite.)

Robby: I think that social media has greatly expanded our capacity to engage in speech. It would be hard to argue otherwise. I mean, right now, we are using an online platform to hold a debate! Remarkable. We forget how much harder this would have been just 15 years ago. But more speech isn’t always pleasant, and in fact, social media has permitted a lot of irritating people to make themselves known, and to identify each other and group together. On the far right, this manifests itself in the form of some really awful racist and sexist people—the alt-right, for instance—engaged in campaigns of harassment that make the internet a much more miserable place. But you also have this problem where now everything people say is public record forever, and it’s trivially easy to go digging, find an unwise remark or joke from perhaps years ago, and get someone fired or dragged through the mud. And this happens to people on the right and the left.

Pardis: Totally agree.

Robby: Social media spaces act as public spaces, but they are privately owned and administered, so the rules here can be more flexible than what the First Amendment requires of, say, a public university. So there are a lot of interesting debates to be had about how much moderation there should be, and if it can be done in a nonbiased way.

Like, in a truly public space, I mean, the Westboro Baptist Church can shriek obscenities at people’s funerals. That’s literally what the Supreme Court has ruled! On Twitter and Facebook, they don’t have to permit that. But they could.

But what results is people being “censored” on social media, and then they complain about it. And sometimes if you look, it does seem like the call was wrong, or unfair, or here’s 80 examples where someone said the same thing and didn’t get in trouble.

Andrés: I don’t envy Mark Zuckerberg. The right accuses him of too much content moderation, the left of not doing enough. And yes, these are not First Amendment questions. He can set whatever rules he wants on his platform.

Robby: The platforms do get attacked either way, yes. Too much moderation, and Sen. Josh Hawley comes for you. Not enough, and it’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Andrés: How do each of you feel about political ads on Twitter and Facebook? The former said it wouldn’t accept them anymore, FB still does. How do you all feel about tolerating a certain amount of what Colbert used to call “truthiness” from candidates on these platforms?

Pardis: I guess I think we need to be wary of censorship of any kind. Our job as educators is to help teach readers how to sift through information. Teaching critical thinking skills and looking for Truth (capital T intentional) is a key component of higher ed. So that is the role we play.

Robby: I prefer Facebook’s approach. I think expecting Mark Zuckerberg to be the arbiter of what’s true online would be foolish, and Zuckerberg was correct to realize this. I’m intrigued by Facebook’s new council that will adjudicate difficult speech questions; this could be a model for other platforms.

Andrés: It’s also true that we can no longer pretend to be in some sealed-off Fortress America. As you noted in a recent article, Robby, two-thirds of Facebook’s new Oversight Board are foreign experts, as befits a global platform. Increasingly, too, institutions like the NBA and even Hollywood studios have to be mindful of Chinese censors when exercising their own speech. Should we worry that our speech freedoms might be devalued by globalization (paradoxically?) regardless of our internal spats on the issue?

Pardis: The global angle is really important, and I’m glad you brought that up. For me, being censored, arrested, and kicked out of Iran for my writings really informs my views on the topic. And it makes me appreciate the importance of academic freedom and free speech here in the U.S.

Andrés: I wondered about that, Pardis. You courageously gave a speech at the University of Tehran in 2007 on sexual politics,

and within 14 minutes of getting started, you were hauled off stage by four soldiers who’d barged in to put a stop to your talk. Subsequently you were detained and expelled from the country. How does that inform your views on speech?

Pardis: I think it makes me really attuned to the importance of freedom to speak.

It makes it so that I don’t take for granted the fact that I can write a book that may be critical of the government and then not be arrested

But it also makes me committed even more to higher education, specifically that which a liberal arts education offers. Teaching students to question, to think, and to uphold the freedom to hold that space

Andrés: Does your experience in Tehran make you empathize with controversial far-right speakers who get disinvited or shouted down on campuses?

Pardis: That’s an interesting question. Because I do want to go back to Sabine’s point about the call for thoughtful speech. My experiences in Tehran were so haunting because I was trying to be very thoughtful about how I presented my work, and it was data driven—the result of a decade of research.

Andres: But who’s to decide what’s thoughtful?

Pardis: I wasn’t speaking up to offend people, I was speaking up because people’s rights were being violated.

Sabine: It’s also important to remember that censorship abroad centers around criticism of government and powerful officials. Here in the United States, I see people like those who signed the Harper’s letter, claim that they’re being censored because there is public outcry against their speech and actions.

And so in assessing these cases, I think it’s important to take into consideration the power differential.

Andrés: The power differential between?

Pardis: Between who is regulating and who is being regulated. A lot of this is also getting mixed up with the social pandemic of racism that rages in our country.

BIPOC individuals have been silenced for a long time. And they want to feel safe to speak up and speak back.

A big problem as I see it is that free speech is posited as the counter weight to efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

And the two are not diametrically opposed forces. Not at all. But that is how it’s being framed.

Sabine: Public figures have larger platforms than the average individual who may criticize them online. I think criticism from youth, students and BIPOC when they “punch up” can be considered as adding to freedom of speech, rather than censorship. Certainly, social media can amplify their power in a way that is unprecedented.

Robby: My issue with the “power differential” argument is that it often seems to assume that there are two groups, the marginalized and the powerful. But people can be marginalized in some situations and powerful in others. Obviously, if you belong to certain historically oppressed groups, that has an impact on you in many ways. At the same time, it’s been fairly easy for the supposedly powerless to drum up social media canceling campaigns (for lack of better terminology) against the supposedly powerful.

Andrés: I always think of poor Trotsky when I hear about cancel campaigns. He was canceled in so many ways!

Robby: I think the next phase of this conversation will move to the workplace. I recently wrote about a San Francisco museum curator who was forced to resign because he said, after noting the museum’s diversity efforts, that well, of course, there would still be paintings from white artists, too. Was it clumsy phrasing? Sure. But it created a petition that branded him a white supremacist and demanded his immediate ouster. This is the kind of thing that worries me, and probably worries a lot of other people. Was it properly a free speech issue? I guess not. Still seems bad and wrong.

Pardis: But this is why we need freedom to be wrong, and freedom to be clumsy, and freedom to talk about things, about pain points, about racism in safe ways.

Andrés: Slate alum Michelle Goldberg wrote in her New York Times column that she does worry about the left having a speech problem in a climate of “punitive heretic-hunting” (speaking of Trotsky), and she alluded to NYU professor Jonathan Haidt’s criticism of “safetyism“ in these debates, when disagreements are quick to lead to calls for HR to get involved. She wrote that “even sympathetic people will come to resent a left that refuses to make a distinction between deliberate slurs, awkward mistakes and legitimate disagreements.”

Pardis: That’s why it keeps coming back to campuses. We need to be having the conversations that get us to better frameworks and phrasing, so that those who want to push political correctness don’t veer into extreme waters of moral panic, either.

Andrés: Robby, I wonder what advice you’d give to universities after all you’ve reported on … to not curb freedom of inquiry that we seek to preserve?

Robby: Fire a bunch of administrators!

Andrés: Whoa, careful! I think I technically may be one.

Robby: University administrations do too much policing of speech, often in the form of investigations. Lots and lots of investigations. I don’t think professors should have to fear that a classroom discussion occasionally veering off topic is going to trigger a Title IX trial. We need to restore a presumption of good faith.

Andrés: Sabine, you get the last word. How do you think you will look back at this time, when you were in college during the Trump administration? Will you look back at this time of incivility and polarization as a precursor of better days, or are you wary that this will be the environment you will be working in for coming years?

Sabine: I hope that future generations feel empowered to help shape the society that they want to see. I do see these turbulent times as a path toward “better days,” but I don’t think incivility is as much of a problem as it is being made out to be. Civility is a comfort for those whose identities are not at stake in the discourse. It shouldn’t be prioritized over standing up for marginalized peoples, and sometimes it’s necessary to shake the table in order to make way for change. Saying something bigoted in a polite tone isn’t respectful, it’s only a false veneer that protects those espousing harm. Tolerance doesn’t need to extend to proponents of bigotry, because bigotry is inherently violent, and I don’t think civility is always required in turn. More than anything, I think the current environment pushes us all to be better. Rather than looking at “cancel culture” as something to fear, I think we can look to it as a moment for growth and learning, which makes me optimistic.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.


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