Commentary

The No-Censorship Approach to Life

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 18, 2016

Students at my institution, Columbia University, exist in a world where virtually every human thought ever conceived is open to study, examination, consideration, acceptance, rejection, debate, and analysis. To be sure, we have standards that guide us as we move through this vast wilderness of the human mind — we insist on notions like reason, fact, nonpartisanship — but nothing is out of bounds for intellectual inquiry.

Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of controversies on campuses across the country, including mine, which were all more or less about speech — the speech of fellow students, of residence-hall administrators, of faculty, of institutions through the naming of buildings and the display of pictures, and of outside people invited to the campus. The debate, in part, has been about what to do about speech that was considered offensive or dangerous. Sometimes there were calls for bans on speech and official punishments.

I do not want to discuss any of those specific issues; however, I do want to make two overarching points. The first is about proposals to stop speech from happening on campus, officially or through private acts of disruption. The rules of the road here are very clear. Even though private institutions like Columbia are not subject to the First Amendment since it covers only actions by the state, many of them, including Columbia, have voluntarily chosen to live by First Amendment principles.

The First Amendment as we know it today is not all that old — in a few years the nation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Supreme Court decisions interpreting freedom of speech. Those came in 1919 in a series of cases under the Espionage Act of World War I, and in the process the court affirmed the jailing of the presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs for the crime of opposing the war and draft and for praising those who resisted.

Looking back, it was obviously not an auspicious beginning for the First Amendment jurisprudence we have come to embrace. For while court interpretations have ebbed and flowed in the scope of protection for speech since then, in the past half century we have all come to a pretty clear position that is unique among nations: With few exceptions, speech that is about or relevant to public issues and the search for truth, broadly interpreted, is fully protected against censorship, no matter how offensive or dangerous it might seem to the majority of the citizens of this country.

In this case, what’s true for the country is also true for Columbia. We don’t ban speech. We don’t censor speech. But make no mistake: This is no simple, clear-cut, self-evident principle or policy; in fact, far from it.

You hear a lot of people these days talking as if this were all perfectly obvious and no reasonable person could believe otherwise. I have spent a good part of my life trying to understand why this approach is indeed the right and sound way to structure a society or a university. I can assure you, it is highly complicated. Nevertheless, it is our choice on my campus that students cannot expect the institution to intervene, to stop thoughts or viewpoints many of us may dislike, and deeply so. And we will not let others do what we cannot.

At the same time, we cannot just leave it there. Just because we cannot and will not stop or censor expression does not mean we will or should do nothing; that we are powerless. The burden we impose on ourselves by forgoing censorship is the responsibility to engage the debate. We can express counterviews, give reasons why the contrary view was wrong, offensive, and dangerous. We can be upset and angry, organize an opposition, ignore or shun a speaker, or deploy humor to deflect injury. We can also listen, reflect, reconsider, and forgive. To say that we can’t ban speech is, in a sense, easy. To say what follows next is very, very hard.

This brings me to that second essential point: How students today grapple with ideas, with thoughts and viewpoints in the myriad ways available to them, will determine who they are. Of course, they will never completely resolve this process; it is too complex for rules or clear guides. They will make many errors, and feel embarrassed looking back. Or they will feel proud and hope they can replicate what they did.

Does this open environment, created by the First Amendment for society — and, by extension, for our campuses — allow students to be confident in their beliefs, yet open to alternative perspectives? Courageous when confronting evil, or weak and fearful? Does it encourage them to change their minds when evidence and reason call for a change, instead of being stubborn and myopic about things they just don’t like or can’t refute?

I hope so. That’s the best rationale we have for our no-censorship approach in life. We throw our graduates into the deep waters of that life, and we must make the most of every opportunity we have to prepare them to deal with the world they will confront. This won’t always be easy — for us or for those students. We humans are not naturally disposed to be open-minded, to be tolerant, and willing to engage with thoughts that are foreign to us and contrary to our own beliefs and views.

Our natural instinct is to preserve our own ways of thinking, whatever they happen to be. Left to our own devices, we avoid discourse, we prefer to associate with those who reinforce our own ways of thinking, and we fear the uncertainty of not knowing what or how to believe.

But in the academic world, our basic intellectual inquiry emphasizes habits of mind that we think increase the odds that we will discover new ideas and truths. We stress being able to suspend our beliefs, to embrace self-doubt, to take joy in learning that we were wrong, to welcome knowing what is not true as another step toward knowing what is true, to be articulate about ideas, to relish complexity, and to use reason while knowing its limits.

To some extent, this commitment to constant self-reflection can make us seem ill-suited for the world outside, which too often elevates voices that are loudest and most sure of themselves. Yet our essential mission remains to invite students to join us in these special qualities of intellect that never stop questioning, whether it’s society’s conventional wisdom or their own beliefs. After all, it may be their only chance in life to see what’s possible with such a truly open mind.

Lee C. Bollinger is president of Columbia University. This essay was adapted from his speech at the university’s fall convocation.