A few thoughts on free speech and academic freedom.

Like everyone, I have my own political views.  I mainly try to keep them out of my professional life, whether it’s my teaching, or my research. My favorite social studies teacher in high school took it as a point of pride that we could not guess what his political views were.  I don’t take it that far, and I’m sure mine are quite easy to guess.  I’m also sure my political views, along with all my other views and life experiences have influenced my choices of research topics.  But I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of doing research in an attempt to confirm a desired viewpoint, whether political or otherwise. This has made me want to keep a distinction between my personal political views, and my role as an academic, particularly since I do some research on political beliefs and motivations.

That became more difficult to do recently, as a controversy erupted in my own building, over the invitation extended to Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News and the Trump campaign and White House, to speak at the Booth School of Business.  I signed a petition expressing disapproval over the invitation, along with many other University of Chicago faculty.  Others actively defended the invitation, on free speech grounds. From what I’ve been hearing, there’s not much so much disagreement within the school in people’s assessments of Bannon, but a great deal of disagreement about what the invitation means, whether it’s brave or a mistake, and what the university should or should not do about it. I think this has largely been portrayed as an issue of protecting people from hate speech, or preserving the right to free speech.

Personally, I see it a bit differently. I think part of the issue is a lack of clarity on what we mean by “free speech”, particularly in an academic context.  Academics, by and large, see ourselves as noble defenders of free speech and open inquiry.  At the same time, judging and even “policing” the ideas of others runs through the core of most of what we do.  We decide which students to admit based not only on their GPA and test scores, but on more general evidence of how well they seem to think and argue.  We grade students’ work, sometimes even failing students who we think are not able to generate accurate or credible knowledge.  We decide which faculty to hire, based on evaluating the quality of their research. We review each others’ papers for academic journals and often reject others’ work, preventing it from being published (at least in that outlet), because we think the “speech” is of low quality. In extreme cases, even after publication, papers get retracted for having major flaws.

None of this is seen as incompatible with free speech values — everyone has a chance to make their case, after all, and rejecting or refusing to promote low-quality work is not seen as suppressing the free speech of the authors.  No one has the right to be invited to give a research seminar or to publish in a particular journal or to get a good grade.  Gatekeeping is part of our mission, to separate the wheat from the chaff, in an attempt to advance an accurate understanding of the world.  In fact, many institutions take pride in being quite exclusionary, by, for example, only inviting to present on campus those academics who they see as conducting the absolutely best research.

Of course, like any human endeavor, this is sometimes done badly, and there is no guarantee that the best work is being promoted at the expense of the worst.   Academics often complain about random-seeming reviewers, or see reviewers as biased, favoring attention-getting work over more reliable findings, for example, or suppressing work critical of their favored paradigm, or even attacking research critical of their own work. This is generally seen as unfair, perhaps bad for science, but not a violation of free speech. After all, the researcher can always get their work out in other ways, and reach those who want to hear about it.  When a person has difficulty publishing their work, even if the work is being rejected for quite subjective reasons and the person doesn’t get tenure as a result, this is not seen as a violation of free speech or academic freedom.  Quality control of this type, imperfect though it may be, is seen as a necessary part of the profession.

Academics do get up in arms about protecting academic freedom. This can seem quite self-serving — as if we get to boss others around but don’t like it when others boss us around. But I think there is a coherent philosophy here, even if not always applied evenly, which hinges on a key distinction: we can police the quality of others’ work (i.e., speech) but not the content.  Free speech or academic freedom does not protect those who conduct gross violations (e.g., making up data or plagiarizing), but it also doesn’t protect speech from being rejected (“suppressed”) if it is of low quality in much more minor (and subjective ways): the appropriateness of the statistical tests used, the quality of the data, the logic of the argument, the generalizability of the findings, the novelty of the points being made, even the readability of the writing. That is all fine. What is seen as a violation of academic freedom is punishing or suppressing work because of the conclusions it reaches.

This brings us to the free speech and academic freedom dimensions of the Bannon case, and why I don’t support having him speak on campus, even though I consider myself an advocate for free speech.  To be clear, despite my opposition to the visit, there are multiple ways in which Bannon might be dis-invited that I would see as a violation of free speech, and which I would strongly oppose.  If the City of Chicago ordered the University not to host him, or a federal official threatened the University’s funding, or if an alumnus threatened to withhold donations if he came or if people who opposed his visit threatened violence, and the university caved to such pressure, I would be upset and protest that decision as a violation of free speech and academic freedom.  If Professor Luigi Zingales, who organized the invitation, was pressured by the university or harassed by people opposed to the visit, that would be disgraceful.  If such inappropriate pressure resulted in rescinding the invitation, that would be a travesty.  In fact, I’m uncomfortable with the protest that was held in Prof. Zingales‘ class, for example.  While by all accounts conducted respectfully, I think it’s a real mistake to respond to the Bannon invitation in a way that impinges on academic expression, even if just for a few minutes, on principle.

It’s a subtler point, but I personally would also be uncomfortable with rescinding the Bannon invitation based on the offensive language that he allegedly uses (and that his Breitbart writers promote).  I do think having him speak will be upsetting, even harmful, to many people.  When he promotes the term “globalist cuckold,”  I feel personally attacked, and I’m sure many others in the university community may feel far more dehumanized by his rhetoric than I do. But I also think that universities cannot base these kinds of decisions on how upset people will be.  After all, someone talking about American slavery, or investigating the Polish role in the Holocaust, or discussing Armenian genocide or female genital mutilation will make some people feel singled out, targeted and perhaps even extremely upset, but that is no basis for precluding such speech.

Where this leaves me is that academia has a role, whether we intend it to or not in a specific circumstance, as arbiters of the quality of the thoughts expressed in speech.  This changes what it means to invite Bannon to speak.  Regardless of the intention, inviting Bannon to speak sends a message that what he has to say has merit and substance, even if you disagree with him.  It says that his ideas, even if they are wrong, are of sufficient quality to be debated.

The distinction here is important. I hope that academics who wish to do so will study Bannon and his impact on American politics; they should interview him, quote him in their work, and so on, as they see fit.  Doing so does not imply any endorsement, or any vetting. Inviting him to campus, I believe, is fundamentally different.  We invite very few people to enjoy the privilege of speaking on campus, and these invitations are made based on an assessment of the intellectual value that the speaker provides. After all, there are millions of people with negative views of any topic you can think of. Some of them spin paranoid rants on street corners, dinner tables or online to anyone who will listen, making up their own facts to suit their foregone conclusions.  We don’t invite these people to speak on campus, whether or not we agree with them, because the quality of what they have to say is not valuable to academic inquiry (or to non-academic inquiry, for that matter) . There are other people, who can provide insight into the same issues, either because they have studied these issues, or because they have firsthand experiences that are relevant.  As long as there is reason to believe that such a person will present an informed perspective that, even if biased, is based in fact and reality, I think there is value in listening.

So, what about Bannon? To me, it boils down to a question of whether he is someone who will provide genuine insight into opposition to globalization and immigration, enabling his audience to have a more complete understanding of the issue.  On this, I think the record is fairly clear.  He was in charge of Breitbart News, a site know for propaganda and cherry-picking, , that Bannon described as the “platform for the alt-right,” which included a section devoted exclusively to reports of crimes committed by African Americans, for example. Under his direction, Breitbart promoted the views of “alt-right” white supremacists, while also publicly disavowing explicit neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League concludes that “Bannon has embraced the alt-right, a loose collection of white nationalists and anti-semites”, but that they “are not aware of any anti-semitic statements from Bannon”.

What else does Bannon bring to the table that would help provide insights into why we are experiencing backlash against globalization and immigration?  He repeatedly cites a novel about dark-skinned refugees whose leader eats feces, who invade Western Europe and, with African Americans, take over in the US, as analogous to current events.  He has allegedly described his views on Europe as influenced by the anti-semitic French writer Charles Maurras, who was sentenced to life in prison for supporting Nazism. Closer to home, Bannon has falsely claimed that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia…“. In an email exchange discussing opposition to Republican leadership, he wrote “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.” He characterized his attack articles on a journalist who was researching Fox News, including accusing the journalist of fraud, as “love taps…just business“. More generally, he has allegedly characterized himself as a “Leninist”, who wants to “destroy the state” and professed his admiration for Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, expressing his desire to be the “Leni Riefenstahl of the GOP“.

In my personal opinion, what emerges is a clear picture, but not of someone who represents a considered negative view of globalization and immigration, and who can shed light on the grievances and disappointments causing a backlash against these trends.  Instead, what these reports suggest is someone who stokes resentment and hatred as a tactic, with seemingly no regard for the truth and with the de facto support of white nationalists, in pursuit of a self-professed destructive agenda. To put it bluntly, my main objection is not that he promotes demonizing political opponents as globalist cuckolds (although despicable…), it’s that there seems to be no substance to his views beyond these kinds of crass attacks. I fail to see any intellectual benefit to engaging in debate with him. Were he not the former Trump campaign manager and chief of staff, I cannot imagine that he would ever be invited to speak on campus based on the intellectual content of his views. However, in my opinion, the fact that he achieved those positions does not make what he has to say any more valuable.

So, where does that leave us?  I assume Bannon will come and either give a talk or participate in a debate.  I think that’s unfortunate.  In my view, it’s a mistake to invite someone seemingly lacking in merit and integrity to speak, and having done so, I think it’s a mistake to maintain the invitation.  I think it would be wise to cancel his talk, not due to caving to political pressure, but by reconsidering what the standards should be for a speaker to whom we give a platform. Otherwise, I worry that we will legitimize and aggrandize Bannon, and discredit the University of Chicago, undermining the University’s reputation for seriousness and intellectual integrity, at least a bit.

Maybe I’m a hypocrite, and shouldn’t get to call myself a free-speech advocate any more, on the grounds that I am trying to “silence” Bannon. But I don’t think so.  First, few people in the world have more opportunities to express their views than Bannon does — journalists clamor to interview him, he has had radio and online platforms for his views, and is evidently writing an auto-biography, not to mention the keen interest the House of Representatives has expressed in hearing more from him. But more importantly, exercising our professional obligation to assess the merit of claims is not a violation of free speech, in my view.  It’s not surprising, or a violation of free speech, that we haven’t invited Diederik Stapel, Andrew Wakefield, Bernie Madoff, or Stephen Glass to give a talk. By the same token, I think we have a responsibility to assess whether having Bannon speak would advance our understanding of the world, or muddy the waters with disinformation.

There is one last aspect to consider, which is the academic freedom of faculty to invite speakers.  The University of Chicago gives faculty broad latitude to teach and research as they see fit, including inviting whomever they please to speak in their courses, for example. I appreciate that tremendously.  However, that is matched by the University of Chicago’s tradition of open feedback and criticism among colleagues.  So, while I believe that everyone, including Prof. Zingales, should have the right to invite the speakers they choose, I also feel that I have not only the right, but also, in this extreme case, an obligation to express why I think this invitation is a mistake.

That is about 2500 more words than I wanted to write about this topic. What I’m really excited to write about is research I’m doing on the accuracy of people’s statistical inferences when generalizing from single events to the outcomes from repeated events and when interpreting forecasts!  Edge-of-your-seat stuff, to be sure, but I’ll have to leave you with that cliff-hanger for now, and save it for next time.


Coda (Feb. 14): I found a lot I agreed with in this Weekly Standard editorial by Gabriel Rossman, a conservative professor of sociology at UCLA, regarding their invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos.