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date: 21 February 2020

Free Speech, Civility, and Censorship in Education

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

Besides being protected by the First Amendment, the right of students and faculty to express divergent opinions—even discomfiting opinions—is central to the academic mission of schools, colleges, and universities. Two familiar Millian arguments underscore this point. First, the dynamic clash of contrary ideas offers the best prospect we have of arriving at the “whole truth” about any complex subject. Second, unless it is subject to periodic questioning and critique, any established and received bit of wisdom “will be held in the manner of a prejudice with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”

These arguments notwithstanding, anyone who has ever spent time in classrooms knows that educators sometimes curtail student speech. Can such conduct be justified in educational institutions dedicated to free and open inquiry and the examination of multiple perspectives? In mundane cases, student speech is suppressed for the sake of minimizing disruptions and maintaining order and efficiency in the classroom—as when the teacher cuts off a particularly loquacious student in order to allow others to get a word in, or a tangent-prone student in order to keep the discussion on point and avoid protracted digressions, etc. Even the most ardent defender of free speech must concede that censorship, in such cases, is necessary for the effective functioning of the educational environment.

A more complex and philosophically interesting set of cases involves educators who silence students for the sake of civility. Granted, when the speech in question involves personally targeted insults, gratuitous put-downs, and the like, the rationale for censorship seems unassailable. But what about speech that is strictly relevant to the topic under consideration, doesn’t descend to the level of direct, personal invective, and yet, nevertheless, denigrates members of some widely stigmatized group—e.g., a student’s declaration, during a discussion of the Supreme Court’s recent same-sex marriage ruling, that homosexuality is aberrant and a legitimate target of deterrent legislation? Is silencing this kind of utterance the appropriate course of action for educators? Or are the interests of all parties better served by permitting such views to be expressed and discussed openly in the classroom?