Free Speech on Campus
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Free Speech on Campus

by Onkar Ghate | February 11, 2005

Because the comments he made shortly after September 11 have come to light, obscene comments in which he vilifies the World Trade Center victims as “little Eichmanns” and lauds their killers as “humanitarians,” Professor Ward Churchill has resigned as chairman of the University of Colorado’s ethnics studies department. But, with the support of other faculty, he retains his professorship. Four members of his department have expressed “unconditional support” for his “freedom of expression and First Amendment rights.” The Faculty Assembly of the university, though it regards his words as “controversial, offensive, and odious,” defends his freedom to utter them.

In opposition, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has called for Churchill’s resignation, saying that taxpayers should not have to subsidize Churchill’s “outrageous and insupportable” views.

Both solutions are incompatible with free speech.

Freedom of speech is an individual’s right to express ideas without coercive interference from the government. Free speech does protect an individual who voices unpopular ideas from governmental force, but it does not require that other citizens support him. If an individual wants others to finance the expression of his ideas, he must seek their voluntary agreement. To force another person to support ideas he opposes violates his freedom of speech.

A journalist, for instance, has the freedom to write what he pleases, but he has no right to demand that Time magazine publish it. That decision belongs to the owners of Time. Similarly, a professor has the freedom to teach any view he wishes, but he has no right to demand that Harvard employ him. That decision belongs to the private owners of Harvard. Freedom of speech is not the right of a Ph.D. to have other citizens provide him with a university classroom.

Yet that in effect is what the professors are demanding.

They maintain that no matter how much the citizens who fund public universities may disagree with a professor’s views, he should be able to continue to exist on the public dole. Taxpayers are to be stripped of their right to choose which ideas their money supports. Why? So that professors can spout whatever theories happen to catch their fancy — including those that brand productive Americans as Nazis and Islamic killers as liberators — without the burden of having to seek the voluntary consent of those forced to sponsor them.

Under the guise of defending free speech, therefore, the professors are actually advocating its destruction.

But it is no solution for the government to put pressure (or worse) on public universities whenever a professor teaches ideas opposed to the views of a majority of taxpayers. The moment the government becomes arbiter of what can and cannot be taught on campus, the moment speech becomes subject to majority vote, censorship results.

What then is the answer? Privatize the universities.

The truth is that public education as such is antithetical to free speech. Whether leftists are forced to pay taxes to fund universities from which their academic spokesmen are barred (as Gov. Owens’ solution requires), or non-leftists are forced to pay taxes to fund professors who condemn America as a terrorist nation, someone loses the right to choose which ideas his money supports.

By its nature, a public university must make decisions about what to include in and to exclude from its curriculum. Of necessity, therefore, some citizens will object to what is being taught in its classrooms. But they are nevertheless forced to finance the communication of those ideas.

To safeguard the right to freedom of speech, the right to private property must be safeguarded. Only private universities can protect free speech. The owners of a university could then hire the faculty they endorsed, while others could refuse to fund the university if they disagreed with its teachings.

However, since privatization would threaten the left’s grip on the universities — as well as any professor who enjoys the unearned privilege of spewing out ideas without worrying about the need to finance their expression — many professors vehemently oppose this solution. In the name of free speech, they denounce as “tyranny of the almighty dollar” the sole means of preserving free speech.

But we must not be fooled by this cry from the professors about their freedom of speech. Freedom is precisely what they don’t advocate. We are right in objecting to being forced to fund their ideas, loathsome or otherwise. The only solution, however, is a free market in education.

About The Author

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute