Dr. Ben Carson & Stomping on Academic Freedom

As a professor and a citizen, I have a stake in higher education. As such, the positions candidates take on education matter a great deal to me. As this is being written, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson has taken the lead among the Republican candidates. While pundits have been predicting that he (and Trump) will flame out and be surpassed by the “serious candidates”, the two men seem to be trading places at the lead. As such, Carson’s views are certainly important to consider.

Carson, who is known for speaking out against the “speech police” has proposed that speech on college campuses should be monitored by the federal government for “extreme political bias.” Carson presented some of the details of his plan on Meet the Press and presented it as aimed at preventing tax-payer money being used to fund propaganda at universities.

While Carson asserts that he has “thought about this” plan, it is still a bit short on details. However, Carson has sketched the basics and says that, “the way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate.”

To show that there is a problem worth solving through the imposition of the power of the federal government, Carson presents a single example: “for instance, there was a university – I’m sure you’ve heard of the situation – where, you know, the professor told everybody, ‘Take out a piece of paper and write the name ‘Jesus’ on it. Put in on the floor and stomp on it.’ And one student refused to do that and was disciplined severely. You know, he subsequently was able to be reinstated…”

When Chuck Todd raised the point that such a policy would violate the First Amendment, Carson assured him that “it’s not a violation of the First Amendment, because all I’m saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn’t be.” In response to the concern that what Carson regards as propaganda might be regarded by others as free speech, Carson replied that “Well, that’s why I said we’re going to have the students send in. And we will investigate.”

Such investigation will apparently be limited to liberal “propaganda.” In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Dana Loesch, the concern was raised that the same policy could be used to monitor conservative political speech. Carson assured Loesch that very strict guidelines would be put in place and these would protect conservative political speech.  Carson makes it clear “…that’s why I used the word ‘extreme.’ I didn’t just say ‘political bias,’ I said ‘extreme political biases.’”

While I might be accused of “extreme political bias”, I believe all citizens who value the First Amendment, regardless of their political leaning, should oppose Carson’s policy. I will endeavor to support this claim with arguments and will begin with the infamous “stomp on Jesus” incident.

The story, as told by Carson, is indeed an awful one. No student should be compelled to stomp on the word “Jesus” and a student who refuses to do so certainly should not be punished. If professors were going rogue like that at state schools, then intervention by the authorities would be warranted. The problem with Carson’s story, which he repeats regularly, is that it is not true. The actual facts are that the point of the exercise, which is from a standard textbook and has been used for thirty years without issues, is that the students will be reluctant to stand (not stomp) on the paper and this will start a discussion on the power of words and how this power is grounded by cultural values. It is true that the student was subject to official action, but this was for the way he treated the instructor and not for refusing to step on the paper. Unfortunately, the story became part of the mythology regarding the liberal horrors of the public university and is still haunting the minds of some like a terrible ghost.

While the fact that the evidence Carson advances to justify his policy is untrue does not show his policy is itself flawed, it does serve to undermine the claim that there is even a problem that needs to be solved. As such, the policy would seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Carson could, of course, try to find other examples of extreme political bias at public universities—but in order to be legitimate examples they would need to actually be true. However, even if extreme political bias was being expressed at public universities, there is still the question of whether or not such a policy would be defensible.

One concern, raised by Chuck Todd, is that such a policy would seem to clearly violate the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, having the state investigate speech at universities and then impose funding cuts in response to speech found to violate Carson’s policy would seem to be unconstitutional. Since this is a matter of law, I must leave this to those who are constitutional lawyers—and I am confident that if President Carson has such a policy implemented it would soon be before the Supreme Court.

A second concern is the matter of academic freedom. While academic freedom does come with responsibilities it clearly protects the expression of views that might be regarded by some as extreme political speech. This applies to speech that would be regarded as left, right or center. So, for example, the discussion of socialism, anarchism and fascism is protected by academic freedom. It is also important to note that academic freedom does not entitle a professor to mistreat, abuse, threaten or bully students. In many ways, academic freedom is an academic version of the First Amendment and arguments in favor of free speech in general can be used to defend academic freedom. There are also numerous excellent reasons that have been advanced in defense of academic freedom. While the short scope of this essay forbids making a full case for academic freedom, one rather compelling reason is that academic freedom is essential for advancing knowledge and developing intellectual abilities.

While some might be tempted to say that academic freedom is a tool of liberals, there is the excellent point raised by the conservative radio show host Loesch.  Carson’s policy is a weapon that could just as easily turned from targeting liberals to targeting conservatives with a change in political fortunes. While Carson was quick to claim that conservatives would be protected from his policy, it should be obvious that if a policy can be set by a right leaning president to ban “extremely biased” liberal speech on campuses, then a policy could be set by a left leaning president aimed at banning “extremely biased” conservative speech on campuses. As such, while some conservatives might be tempted to support policing liberal speech on campus, they should consider the Golden Rule. If that is not appealing, they should remember that when a legal sword is forged, it is usually happy to cut anyone—even the hand that once wielded it. So, before making that sword, it is well worth thinking about how much it would hurt to be hit in the face with it by the next person in office. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

A third concern is that Carson’s plan casts students as spies (or snitches). This is problematic for a few reasons. One is the moral concern about having students serve as agents of what would seem to be the thought police. While this is not an argument, the thought police and their spies are never heroes in American films. And this is for a good reason: they are not heroes. A second is the practical concern that students would misuse this power. While most students would not use a threat of a report to the Carson thought police to improve their grade, the history of thought policing does show that there are always people who are willing to use it to their advantage. Since the complaints would be a matter of ideology rather than matters of fact this sort of policy seems to be fraught with peril for professors and education.

Given all these problems, Carson’s proposed plan should be opposed by everyone who believes in academic freedom and the First Amendment.

 

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