In part 1 of this post I outlined an account of the mainstream liberal view about academic freedom, free speech, and their overlapping democratic purposes. According to this account the university should have an academic zone, protected by academic freedom, and aimed at furthering democratic competence, and it should also have a free speech zone, aimed at supporting democratic legitimation.

I think there’s a problem with this picture. Roughly, what goes on in the academic zone is compromised by what goes on in the free speech zone. The intellectual aims that the university is meant to serve, with a view to furthering our democratic competence, can be undermined by the kind of free speech culture that takes root in universities. This undermining is most evident when it comes to the educative arm of the university’s purposes. If every campus-dweller’s free speech is protected similarly to the scholar’s academic freedom, then the typical student’s experience of university – particularly in fields that intersect with social politics: history, law, philosophy, economics, public policy, psychology, social science, education, and modern languages – can become something more like a pseudo-educative pageant, rather than a regimented, epistemically salutary, educational experience. If this sounds overegged, remember that nearly every university today self-consciously markets itself as a place where students can experience not just an education, but a total socialisation experience. And the people who shape that socialisation experience aren’t just scholars with a sense of accountability to the norms and purposes that govern their disciplines. The campus experience is shaped by bottom-line-obsessed managers, enterprising student leaders, activists – of many stripes, good and bad – and opportunistic trolls, cynically cashing in on the whole scene.

This isn’t a knock on free speech. Free speech is integral to the vitality and legitimacy of democracy. That remains true and important. But those who worry that there isn’t enough free speech at universities have it almost back-to-front. Universities are overwhelmed by the discursive free-for-all that characterises campus life. The university should be a place where intellectual discipline reigns above all. Yes, the scholar is meant to be free from top-down ideological constraints. But what she is expected to do, with that freedom, is oversee an intellectually disciplined educative program. To say, as John Dewey once did, that the university should be an experiment station, isn’t to say that it should be a marketplace of ideas. To efface that distinction is to misunderstand the nature of both experiments and markets. And the cost of that misunderstanding is an erosion of the pedagogical culture that underpins (one half of) the university’s very reason for being.

But what about research? Surely the activities of researchers are benefited by their academic departments being nested in campuses that embrace free speech? Maybe. But there are considerations that weigh on both sides of the equation. Granted, in societies where there is coercive, state-backed ideological conformity, academic researchers are fundamentally hobbled. To suggest otherwise would be an insult to those trying to carry out the scholarly vocation under such regimes. And by the same token, in societies where there isn’t coercive ideological conformity, it’s obviously much easier for researchers to ply their trade. But the question is whether academic research is further assisted by housing researchers in institutions that embrace a content-neutral free speech ethos – where the worth of ideas is decided by marketplace mechanisms, instead of disciplinary expertise. Here’s one reason to think it isn’t. In a marketplace of ideas, people don’t buy the true ideas; they buy the ideas they prefer. Markets don’t magically sift truths from falsehoods, any more than they magically ensure the popularity of good-value-for-money products over crappy ones. When they’re functioning properly, markets facilitate an efficient allocation of things in line with people’s preferences. And as James Cox and Alvin Goldman persuasively argue, that’s just as true in a marketplace of ideas as in any other marketplace [1]. (Their analysis has been dismayingly vindicated by the growth of social media-based echo chambers.)

Again, none of this is to deny that scholarly research must be free from ideological constraints. That’s a crucial part of what the specialised principles and institutions of academic freedom are for. But a campus free speech culture doesn’t just unbuckle the ideological constraints. It also unbuckles the intellectual constraints that academic disciplines are meant to impose – and which, for the sake of university’s constitutive purposes, they must impose.

The points I’m driving at, then, are – first – that academic freedom and free speech aren’t identical; they impose different demands; and – second – that we can have academic freedom without having universities governed by a free speech ethos. (And indeed, that is basically what some higher education systems did have, during the brief period between the ascent of the Humboldtian model of the university, in the interwar period, until the 1960s and 1970s, when this model rapidly evolved towards a modified civil libertarian model.) In a university sector that cherishes academic freedom, but which adopts a more cautious, measured, balancing approach to free speech, we still have an institution that serves a vital role in democracy. The university’s core purpose, thus conceived, is to strengthen democratic competence. The work of democratic legitimation can be delegated to other discursive arenas. A reluctance to delegate may be well-meaning, but it runs the risk of furthering our society’s (apparently mushrooming) democratic incompetence.

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[1] Alvin I. Goldman and James C. Cox (1996), “Speech, truth, and the free market for ideas”, Legal Theory 2 (1), pp. 1-32.

I’m a Lecturer in Philosophy at UCL; originally from Melbourne, and before settling in London in 2018 I was a Lecturer in Philosophy at Monash University (2013-17), and a Visiting Assistant Professor in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago (2015). My interests mainly lie in social and political philosophy, with a particular focus on free speech and religious tolerance, and the philosophical (moral, epistemological) foundations of liberalism.