Have you heard? There’s a culture war being waged! Our very way of life is threatened! Nowhere is this more apparently than on college campuses! Evil liberal college students are trying to suppress our right to free speech:
If Emory University students got their way, end-of-semester course evaluations would ask them to indicate whether their professors had committed “microaggressions” against them.
The explicit goal of such a question on evaluations would be to punish professors who engaged in speech that offended students. According to student-protesters, as reported by The Emory Wheel:
We demand that the faculty evaluations that each student is required to complete for each of their professors include at least two open-ended questions such as: “Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, and/or other identity?” and “Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability, and class identities?” These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors. We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, Fall 2015.
I’ve tried to stay out of this “culture war” nonsense because I made the mistake of assuming most libertarians understood what the root problems were. But as I see more and more libertarians latching onto the culture aspect I realize my assumption made an ass out of me. So let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.
Free speech isn’t the issue here, contrary to what many libertarians claim. Truth be told libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge free speech. Libertarianism acknowledges property rights. So long as you’re on your own property you can say whatever you want but the second you step foot on somebody else’s property they can boot you for saying something they don’t approve of. From a libertarian perspective the first problem isn’t free speech, it’s the lack of clear property rights. Public universities fall into the same murky category as all government property. Ownership is unclear therefore who gets to make the rules is unclear. But there’s another fundamental problem here. Even unclear property rights tend to be a trivial problem so long as the interests of everybody involved are mostly aligned.
These campus disputes are exacerbated by the fact a lot of people with vastly different beliefs are trying to control organizations that have no clear membership criteria. Most high school students have it drilled into their heads that their highest mission in life is to get a diploma so they can work for somebody. Therefore a high school student’s senior year usually consists of sending applications to universities. Although some students have specific schools in mind most just want to get accepted somewhere so they can get that piece of paper that fulfills their mission objective. On the flip side of this equation are the universities. They base who they accept primarily on academic criteria. In the end you have a bunch of students with no expressed purpose other than obtaining a diploma joining an organization that has no expressed membership criteria other than academic scores. Basically we’ve got a bunch of people who don’t necessarily agree with one another joining the same organization.
Let’s compare this with a pirate ship. Pirate ships are interesting because they necessarily require a crew cooperating with one another to function. Ownership of a pirate ship was much clearer than the ownership of a public university but it wasn’t what many libertarians would consider ideal. No single person who owned the ship. Instead each crew member effectively owned a share of the ship. Pirate ships also usually had a constitution. People wanting to join a pirate ship had to agree to the clauses of the ship’s constitution, which outlined everything from the chain of command to punishments to the division of plunder, before being accepted. The reason for this is obvious: a ship only functions if the entire crew is working together. To avoid having everything fall apart pirate ships told potential crew members what was expected of them before they signed up. Pirates chose their ship based on what they wanted. If a pirate didn’t want to, say, attack British ships (believe it or not many pirates were ideological and wouldn’t attack just anybody) they signed up with a ship that had a stated prohibition against attacking British ships. Furthermore any changes to the rules had to be approved by all members of the ship since each member was effectively a partial owner of the ship.
How does a pirate ship relate to a university? It’s an organization that’s a far more interesting example than, say, a hippie cooperative that specialized in gluten free, organic, free trade, all natural food and doesn’t suffer from the same pitfalls as most public universities.
Some university students want a tightly controlled environment where things like offensive speech are prohibited. Other students want a very loosely controlled environment where people can say almost anything without consequence. Neither of these desires are right or wrong, it’s just a difference in preference. Problems arise because ownership of most universities are unclear and they don’t outline membership criteria up front. Free speech isn’t the issue. Students becoming members of organizations with unclear processes for establishing and changing rules that also don’t align with their preferences is the problem.