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At one point, Snyder invokes the authoritarian legislation sweeping the country and snarkily suggests that our time would have been better spent “mobilizing resistance” to that — even though much of Chapter 4, “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory Today?,” is devoted to explaining those attacks and their origins. (As it happens, Jennifer does spend her time promoting the African American Policy Forum’s campaign against those bills.) But the real issue is that Snyder does not grasp the main point of the book. It’s Not Free Speech is an argument against the bills and the right-wing movement behind them (calling them a “perfect, and perfectly hideous, example of intellectual authoritarianism”), precisely because it insists that academic freedom is the collective responsibility of faculty members in their disciplines. It is not something politicians can interfere with without destroying the role of the university in a democratic society (as Jennifer has argued in these pages). Central to the book is the belief that academic-freedom cases must be placed in the hands of faculty peers, not administrators vulnerable to outside political pressures or the courts with their wildly uneven record on academic freedom.
So the issue here is not just a misrepresentation here and a misconstrual there. There is something more important at stake: a real disagreement about the relation of academic freedom to free speech.
But as for those misrepresentations: the most serious concerns Snyder’s claim that we would rule out of bounds any debate about Brown v. Board of Education. This claim rests on a sloppy reading of two sentences in chapter four: “Some things are not worthy of entertaining as if we could pretend they were bloodless. Whether Brown v. Board of Education ‘should have happened’ is one.” The phrase “should have happened” comes from a Princeton undergraduate, Brittani Telfair, who was arguing that some debates do not make “symmetric asks.” Black people who have to argue, again and again, against the premises of segregation and Jim Crow are not in a symmetric relation to people whose forebears never experienced segregation and Jim Crow. This is an important and, we hope, by now elementary point about the difference between free speech in theory and free speech in practice. Brittney Cooper made it brilliantly back in 2017 in these pages. Snyder implies that by the logic of our book the kinds of arguments made by Derrick Bell regarding how Black children might conceivably have been better off under Plessy v. Ferguson or by Gloria Ladson-Billings on the price paid for Brown v. Board would be off limits. This strikes us as absurd, and we think will strike careful readers of the book as absurd as well.
Snyder missed that point by focusing on the phrase “not worthy of entertaining” and ignoring “as if we could pretend they were bloodless.” He also ignores our citation of our Black colleagues Carolyn Rouse and Mark James, who, in the pages that lead up to those two sentences, explain that debating the virtues of segregation or the benefits of colonialism puts Black people in the position of having to take seriously the belief that racism is and always has been justified — and having to pretend that the question is bloodless. Of course debate about Brown v. Board is legitimate. The only ideas we’re proposing to exclude — or to put in the dustbin alongside phrenology and phlogiston — are the white supremacist ones that provided the foundations for Jim Crow, for eugenics, and for the Holocaust.
But then, Snyder takes things out of context, while cleverly accusing us of taking things out of context. He writes: “The authors refer to ‘legions of racist professors’ and the ‘entrenched, unshakeable beliefs of the white-supremacist professoriate.’” Snyder does not explain that the phrase refers to the historians of the Dunning School, who devoted their careers to arguing that Reconstruction failed because Black people are incapable of self-government, and that the second phrase was delivered in the context of a discussion of Gregory Christainsen, now retired from California State University-East Bay, a “race realist” who taught students that there are measurable differences in the intelligence of various “races”; that these differences are captured in IQ scores; and that they are attributable to genetics rather than to social variables. Anyone familiar with the legacy of pseudoscientific racism would know that these beliefs are indeed entrenched and unshakeable. (Christainsen’s field? Economics.) His university ignored student complaints about his courses, as readers of our book will learn. We do not think that the professoriate is packed with Klan members; we do think that there are some zombie ideas that keep making a comeback despite their being repeatedly discredited.
It is fitting, somehow, that when Snyder baselessly accuses us of taking a professor’s words out of context, the professor in question is the notorious Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania. Snyder objects to our calling Wax a white supremacist: “The authors’ evidence consists of two excerpts, largely stripped of context, from a speech that Wax gave at the 2019 National Conservatism conference.” In that speech, which we discuss in detail, Wax promoted a “cultural distance nationalism” whose premise is that “we are better off if our country is dominated numerically, demographically, politically, at least in fact if not formally, by people from the First World, from the West, than by people from countries that had failed to advance” — or, more succinctly, “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” Snyder writes, “Without seeking additional information beyond what they have presented, I am not sure how many people would feel qualified to judge whether Wax is a ‘white supremacist.’ I don’t.” But when someone says that white people are better (more civilized, more advanced) than nonwhite people, that is literally white supremacism. We can’t imagine what else to call it. (Fortunately, The Chronicle provided a link to Wax’s speech in Snyder’s essay, so curious readers can read her remarks for themselves.)
This disagreement about Wax brings us to another fundamental misrepresentation in Snyder’s review: the implication that we are the ones calling these shots or ruling anything out of court. We explicitly say that we are not. We are calling for what the American Association of University Professors has long considered best practice: a deliberative process, with authority distributed among a horizontal panel of peers in the relevant fields. Too many cases today, we argue, are decided without such a process — and, importantly, this includes the adjunct instructor who can simply not be rehired to appease complaining students, parents, or donors. We think academic-freedom committees can do a better job adjudicating the controversies that pop up almost daily than can an individual provost, a series of tweets, or arguments made in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Free speech” as a slogan once served dissenting voices and struggles (the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was about the right to protest the Vietnam War on campus), but that’s not how it typically functions today. In the public sphere, it facilitates hate speech and conspiracy theories. Most important, the widespread conflation of free speech and academic freedom makes it incredibly difficult for universities to do their jobs, which is to discriminate between high-quality speech (which refers to disciplinary expertise and is protected by academic freedom) and low-quality speech (which refers to ungrounded opinion).
The First Amendment doesn’t demand or expect that speech be responsible or informed in any way, but academic speech — speech with a claim to expertise — does. That distinction is critical. When commentators ritualistically frame every academic disagreement in terms of free speech, they blur an essential distinction and facilitate the movement by which self-interested and partisan forces actively undermine democracy.
The contribution of It’s Not Free Speech is not so much to recognize that content-free ideals like free speech work differently at different times on playing fields that have never been even; many people understand this better than we do. (We turn to the philosopher Charles W. Mills for help with this). Our contribution is, we hope, to think about what these insights — about content-free ideals, “cheap speech,” and who makes judgment calls in the academic arena now — mean for how we realize academic freedom. Of course, we are not the only ones trying to think this through. A growing body of work analyzes the relationship of power to academic freedom: We are thinking, for example, of Steven Salaita’s Uncivil Rites; Johnny E. Williams’s article “The Academic Freedom Double Standard: ‘Freedom’ for Courtiers, Suppression for Critical Scholars” in the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom; and Reshmi-Dutt Ballerstadt and Kakali Bhattacharya’s collection, Civility, Free Speech, and Academic Freedom in Higher Education.
We welcome spirited discussion of It’s Not Free Speech. We hope, though, that it will be discussion aimed at addressing some of the serious problems we face — in academe and in democracy.