I Teach a Class on Free Speech. My Students Can Show Us the Way Forward.

Free speech is very hard to get right, especially on campus — as has been evident all fall at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach a course on the history of free speech and censorship. If colleges and universities are best understood as microcosms of the larger world, then they should be governed by the First Amendment alone. This would mean restricting only speech that directly incites violence, threatens specific individuals or constitutes targeted harassment.

But if colleges and universities — public or private — are better understood as special spaces with missions distinct from the world at large, then they need some special rules of operation, tailored to the classroom, the student club and the college green.

One problem is that neither the left nor the right knows which model fits, making it difficult to determine any fair boundaries for campus speech. The politics around free speech have also shifted. And norms about what counts as dangerous speech, and what ought to be done about its articulation, have been changing faster than any of us can keep up with them.

No wonder students are confused when it comes to speech on campus right now. Frankly, so are faculties, administrators and, yes, donors and trustees. This may help explain why university presidents are finding themselves in a bind, unable to articulate fully consistent positions — and in the case of the University of Pennsylvania’s now-former President Elizabeth Magill, being sacrificed in the process. (Full disclosure: Ms. Magill is a friend.)

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