Freedom of Speech on Campus

Much controversy rages over campus speech these days. Examples abound; here’s one from George Washington University about students hanging flags from their dorm windows. What legitimate free speech rights do students enjoy on campus? The answer is: it depends.

Before examining the dependency, let’s distinguish natural rights from contractual rights. Natural rights are entitlements that stem directly from our humanity. It’s often said that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are natural rights but they aren’t. The only genuine natural rights are property rights: control of our own body, control of our own material and intellectual creations, and control of things we have acquired through voluntary transactions.

Contractual rights arise from an exchange that plays out over time. If I’m a student at GWU, a private University, I may have been promised that in return for my tuition, I will acquire a number of entitlements including freedom of speech on campus, within limits (no yelling “fire!” in a crowded lecture hall). That’s the only freedom of speech I have on campus. If GWU should want to forbid pro-Israel speeches on campus, for example, and I accept that as a condition of admission, then I have no right to lobby for Israel on campus.

Things get complicated when the institution is publicly owned.[1] Who owns San Jose State University? Not “the people”—that would be meaningless. The owner is the person or group who has final say over campus property and policies. That might be the Board of Trustees of the California State University, but how much of their control have they relinquished to what other parties? Hard to say, and in particular it’s hard to say who gets to set restrictions on campus speech—and of course all manner of such restrictions are necessary if the business of the University is to go forward. No blocking hallways, no disrupting classes, etc.  In the case of a public university, somebody has to decide what sort of speech is allowed, usually according to what is politically palatable to the loudest voices.

 

To repeat, the only genuine natural rights are property rights. Freedom of speech or religion are not fundamental rights but are contingent on the ownership of property involved in any particular speech or religious activity.

[1] “Public ownership” is actually an oxymoron because ownership means some people are excluded while public means everybody is included.

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2 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech on Campus

  1. I agree with you that there is no freedom of speech independent of the right of property. However I do think that academic institutions have a presumptive obligation to encourage free discourse. If the purpose of a university is to foster learning then no subject, no matter how trivial or vulgar, should be prohibited from discourse on its campus. Freedom of speech is, I think, an implicit contractual right in universities.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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