The recent student protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri have provoked many fundamental questions about our universities and our political values, and rightly so. Students have demanded formal recognition and reform from university administrators, arguing that our campuses are still filled with racial inequality and discrimination. A powerful backlash has brewed, with many claiming that these protests function as an assault on free speech rights on campus. The issues of racial equality and free expression on campus are fundamental to our conceptions of higher education, and we need to address them carefully. But these situations should also compel those of us on the left to consider the relationship between our goals and our tactics. Too often, the American left sacrifices the potential for meaningful victory at the altar of our political purity, allowing us to maintain our righteous posture but preventing us from achieving real change. If we truly honor the cause of these protesters, we must prioritize tactics that are likely to result in building a mass movement, rather than those that merely speak to the converted.
Consider the relationship of these protests to free speech. At both campuses, an unfortunate meme has developed that the struggle for racial equality stands in antagonism to free speech rights. At Yale, students called for the resignation of an administrator following an email they deemed insensitive. At MU, students were accused of threatening members of the press, preventing them from doing their work. Both of these situations are complex, and neither group of protesters deserves to be tarred with censorship accusations. But the accusations stuck, and in the world of political organizing, perception matters even if when that perception is not entirely fair.
How best to respond to these claims? In the heat of political organizing, in a polarized political landscape, I understand why the protesters and some of their allies in the press might argue affirmatively against the principles of free speech on campus. After all, when it seems like the entire mainstream media is casting your efforts as antagonistic to free expression, it would be easy to accept that this conflict is real, and to adopt a bunker mentality in which you defend against criticisms stemming from a civil liberties perspective by denying the importance of those liberties. And, unfortunately, there is in fact a strain of the academic left that does see freedom of speech as an outdated artifact of white supremacy, which I have encountered in both my academic and political life. I recognize why student protesters might feel moved to adopt an anti-free speech stance.
But if this attitude is understandable, it’s also unfortunate, and not merely in the sense of political principle. That attitude is also contrary to their pragmatic goals. In order to effectively fight racism, these passionate student protesters will have to win over converts to their cause. That’s not an invocation of an abstract political principle; it’s a simple statement of the practicality of power. Because the white majority controls most of this country’s institutions, anti-racist activists must rally masses to their cause, to utilize people power. They must gain the support of those who are not already convinced of their message, whether or not that expectation is fair. And free speech is very, very popular in American life. By arguing as if the student protests are in fact antagonistic to free speech, supportive journalists and writers surely stoke the passions of those who already agree with the protesters. But they do little to help the cause of creating new allies, in a country that embraces the principle of free expression with almost religious fervor.
The message should not be that these students are protesting against free speech, but that their protests represent free speech at its best, and that isolated incidents that seem to reflect a resistance to free expression do not reflect the true character of this movement. To respond defensively by lashing out against the concept of free speech is to violate a core principle of political strategy: never play into your opponent’s frame! Why should these protest movements accept the negative stereotype that their critics have made of them? Instead, protesters and their allies in the media should turn the accusation back around at these critics. We should insist that, by failing to prevent the harassment and exclusion of students of color, college administrators have in fact inadequately defended the basic rights of these students, most certainly including the right to free expression. We should also insist that, by raising their voices in protest, these students are in fact embracing the principle of free expression in its truest sense.
Some will continue to insist that the fight for racial equality should trump the right to free speech. This strikes me as a terrible political miscalculation, and a fight the protesters can’t win. As is so often the case with the left, the conflict is between what appears righteous to the already-convinced and what is actually most likely to result in real change. We have to ask ourselves this basic question: are we more interested in being right, or more interested in changing the world? I’m afraid a lifetime spent in left-wing politics teaches me that the answer to this question is not always clear.