The academic blogosphere--including Eugene Volokh, Jacob Levy, and Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds--is up in arms over threats to freedom of speech on college campuses. "[T]he regulation of merely offensive speech in classroom settings is an utterly noxious idea," writes Levy, and the rest resoundingly agree. I admit to being a trifle confused; my understanding was that the whole point of universities is that a student whose speech--in classroom presentations, on exam papers, in course assignments--is not even offensive but merely insufficiently scholarly can face penalties as severe as expulsion. Have things changed that much since I went to school?
Actually, not that much; on-campus ranting about free speech was popular back in my day, as well (although in Canada, where I studied, the rhetoric was always much more muted and less indignant). Now, I recognize the important role that free speech plays in a healthy democracy, as well as the dangers inherent in limiting free expression in society as a whole. But universities are not society as a whole, nor are they even democracies. They are institutions (ostensibly) dedicated to education and research, whose members voluntarily forgo all sorts of freedoms (such as the freedom to neglect one's education and the freedom to do shoddy research) for the sake of furthering the academic community's (and hopefully their own, similarly aligned) goals. And it would seem obvious that, say, broadly offensive speech (or, for that matter, false or even illucid speech) would often work to the detriment of these goals, by undermining reasoned, dispassionate debate.
Of course, the common response of free speech defenders to such observations is that university faculties and administrations, if given the power, would use speech restrictions to stifle legitimate political debate on campus. And it's certainly possible that some, or even many, might do so. Then again, those same administrations can easily use their power to grant or deny tenure, to fund departments, to admit or reject and graduate or fail students, and so on to exactly the same nefarious ends. And these instruments are scarcely less potent, in ruthless hands, than the right to make rules about, say, offensive language. It's hard to argue that, say, banning racial epithets on a campus has anything like the chilling effect of, say, requiring students to pass a course in which grades are given for writings and presentations based on their political content.
In fact, too much free expression has sometimes threatened the academic health of universities as seriously as too little of it. Thuggish behavior on campus--shouting down of speakers, destruction of leaflets or newspapers, even physically threatening behavior--often masquerades as "protest", with its perpetrators demanding absolute protection from punishment in the name of "free speech". The endless chanting of the free-speech mantra is thus a pitifully ineffective substitute for vigorous action to protect the scholarly collegiality of the modern academic environment.
Sadly, few academic leaders--let alone students or other citizens--take notions like "the scholarly collegiality of the modern academic environment" the slightest bit seriously these days. As I have written before, the modern liberal arts university is an institution adrift, bereft of serious purpose, and thus at the mercy of interest groups keen to hijack it to advance their own goals. In the hands of these groups, the "free speech" slogan is just another rhetorical bludgeon with which to pummel the university into submission; in the absence of serious defenders, or even a serious alternative vision, the university is helpless to defend itself.
In 1993, when University of Pennsylvania student Eden Jacobowitz was punished for shouting an insult (thought by some to be racist) at a group of African-American women who were celebrating loudly outside his dorm window, disturbing his (and his dormmates') studies, he became an instant martyr to the cause of free speech. Some decried him as a bigot; most deplored UPenn's persecution of him. Nowhere was the slightest attention paid to the real lesson of the story: that the University of Pennsylvania simply did not care about whether some students' raucous behavior might be disrupting their fellow students' efforts to study.
Then again, by 1993 the idea that a university might think to value studiousness over partying had long been relegated to academia's distant past. After all, such a policy might interfere with "free speech".