The inaugural Rappaport Forum was held at Harvard Law School, starting with a panel discussion on “the role and limits of free speech on college campuses.” If the subject matter of the panel doesn’t immediately catch your eye, I’ll spell it out for you.
It wasn’t a panel on the protection of free speech, or the expansion of free speech, or even the assurance of free speech. It was a panel on the “limits” of free speech. As if limits were such an obvious need that the question was never “should there be a limits,” but rather what limits should there be.
In a discussion lasting roughly an hour on Friday afternoon, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, and Jonathan Haidt, an ethical leadership professor at New York University, discussed the definition of violent speech and how the parameters of free speech have changed on college campuses with the advent of the internet.
Taking the side as advocate of free, or more precisely, freer speech was Jonathan Haidt, co-author with Greg Lukianoff, of The Coddling of the American Mind.
At the Law School event, Haidt drew a distinction between the idea of free speech in public spaces and the idea of free speech on college campuses. He argued universities should follow a different set of parameters regarding free speech than other public spaces.
“You can’t just come here and say, you know, the Newtown shootings never happened,” Haidt said. “There’s no point in having that on a college campus. And so I think we all agree that a scholar who had presented work that some people find horrible, hateful, or upsetting if still playing by the rules and should be allowed — is a legitimate person to invite.”
No flat-earth lectures? Fair enough, although if there is a Flat Earth Society on campus, are they not allowed to invite someone to speak? And what of matters that are deeply controversial, but less absolute in their falsity? Haidt’s point begs the question of who and how it’s decided that a person is legitimate enough to invite. Much of the issue is whether someone is “playing by the rules,” whatever that means, sufficiently to be allowed to speak on campus.
But the core message Haidt offered was two-fold: first, that it is not wrong for colleges to refuse a platform to invited speakers, as they should have a “different set of parameters” than other public spaces. Second, that the line should be “legitimacy” rather than “horrible, hateful, or upsetting.” His interlocutor, Lisa Feldman Barrett, thought otherwise.
Barrett said educators should be mindful of students’ backgrounds and their tolerance for stress when engaging in difficult topics and conversation.
“The truth is honestly that some of us are better equipped just because of our life circumstances to deal with than others,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that they are off the hook for any responsibility, but he does mean that there’s a context here. And we do well as educators to pay attention to that context where we won’t actually meet the goal that we have.”
There was once a battle waged against the “heckler’s veto,” where the loudest, most aggressive, most vicious opponent’s threats and acts provided reason to silence speech. But Barrett argues for the snowflake’s veto, that schools of higher education, and Harvard Law School, should be “mindful” of the sensitivities, real, claimed or imagined, of students and protect them. And she grounded her point in “science.”
She added that she believes campus speech policies should have a basis in science.
“We have evolved as a species to have socially dependent nervous systems,” Barrett said. “That means I can text three words to someone halfway around the world, who can’t hear my voice and can’t see my face, and I can make their heart rate go up.”
“If we all do that — which we do — we regulate each other’s nervous systems, that means we are more responsible actually, for people, then we might like,” she added.
What sort of monster would want a law student’s heart rate to go up? And the value of this panel of two was summed up by a sharp-eyed Harvard law student.
Law School student Nathan Wexler said he thought both speakers’ discussion on the parameters of speaker invitations at colleges was productive, adding that he believes universities should have a “clear set of morals about what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be.”
In 2014, Harvard prawf Jeanie Suk Gerson noted that academics teaching crim law feared teaching the law of rape, as it triggered some students and was “too risky to undertake.” In retrospect, this explains a lot about law students’ and new lawyers’ shocking lack of knowledge about this aspect of law. But here we are, with a new Harvard Law School forum provided courtesy of the Rappaports, where the range of discussion about free speech is about how much to limit it, how far to go to protect students’ heart rate from going up.
That Haidt didn’t take the position that “anything goes” isn’t surprising. He’s a smart and moderated guy who would be disinclined to argue that colleges should have speakers to promote the notion that the moon is made of green cheese. Fortunately, there is no Moon Is Made of Green Cheese Society at Harvard Law, as far as I’m aware.
But when the scope of discussion begins at the moderated middle and extends from there to how science requires us to silence speakers and ideas that might challenge the heart rates of those delicate little flowers known as law students, the battle is lost before it begins. There is no one to utter the words that law student Nathan Wexler needs to hear, that he needs to be taught regardless of what he passionately believes to be moral.