A Philosopher's Blog

Dr. Ben Carson & Stomping on Academic Freedom

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2015

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 that is 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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19 Responses

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  1. ronster12012 said, on October 28, 2015 at 9:17 am


    Why on earth would a supposedly intelligent man propose a Stasi like approach with snitches etc on supposedly ‘extreme political speech’? Better to just stick with free speech but give at the same a good hard smacking to anyone who even mentions ‘microaggressions’ ‘privilege’ or being ‘offended’. OK, it’s a bit of a contradiction there, but i can live with it lol

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 28, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      I am not sure why Dr. Carson is proposing this plan. He might be appealing to the base. Or he might really believe there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

  2. TJB said, on October 28, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Mike, you see the value in academic freedom. Pity you don’t see the value in economic freedom.

    • WTP said, on October 28, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Mike, you see the value in academic freedom.

      I don’t know about that. Academic freedom is under attack on a regular basis by academics themselves and Mike is silent. He is only concerned when finances, money taken involuntarily from taxpayers, is under threat of being withheld. Which itself is not a threat to academic freedom, but Mike sees it as a threat to his entitlement to our labor via tax dollars. Academics shut down other academics on a fairly regular basis, speech codes already exist on many universities, imposed by those institutions on people who express non-PC opinions. I have personally seen professors and even public school teachers mock and bully students whose opinions are not of the PC variety. Hell, Mike does nearly as much in his pussy passive-aggressive manner quite regularly on this blog. To believe that such does not spill over into his approach to teaching would be rather naive.

      Do you really believe that while Mike is for controlling people economically, he is not opposed to controlling people in other domains? Remember when he objected to S&P downgrading the US credit rating? He wanted to control that speech. He opposed collective speech, unless of course it comes from those with whom his political sympathies lie.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 28, 2015 at 1:15 pm

        Yes, I am the worst.

        As far as protecting academic freedom from academics, look at my posts on trigger warnings: https://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/?s=trigger+warnings

        • WTP said, on October 28, 2015 at 9:50 pm

          Yeah, more fallacies. A couple posts on the micro aggression/trigger warning BS where the left is turning on itself. You’re just defending yourself from the Special Snowflake Society that you academics on the left have nurtured with your whiny, juvenile “it’s not fair!” response to the slightest of life’s difficulties. Conservative and libertarian speakers get disinvited or shouted down when they come to campuses to present diverse views, professors openly mocking non-leftist view points for decades, finding a traditional Republican on most campuses is damn near impossible. But hey, some special snowflake uses a trigger warning as an excuse to skip one of your classes and you’re all “I’m a victim too!” Gimme a break.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 28, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      Oh, I value both. But, just as I accept that there are limits on academic freedom (for example, I can’t use that to justify abusing, threatening, coercing or hurting students) I also accept limits on economic freedom.

      As a principle, I go with Mill: when my actions only hurt me, I am free to do as I will. When they start harming others, then it is their business.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 28, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Lawyers backing Clinton, financiers flocking to Bush: Who’s funding the race for the White House http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/10/lawyers-backing-clinton-financiers-flocking-to-bush-whos-funding-the-race-for-the-white-house/

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 28, 2015 at 5:54 pm

  5. nailheadtom said, on October 29, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Carson fits right into the politician mold, promoting unworkable solutions for non-existent problems in order to pander to some sub-set of ignorami that are likely to skip work so they can make an X next to the name of someone they don’t know and can’t really evaluate. That’s how we select the person with the responsibility of pushing the Big Button that releases the ICBMs. Candidates, rather than making fools of themselves at contrived media circuses, should undergo mandatory psychiatric evaluations by a team of well-respected shrinks whose opinions are then published in supermarket tabloids. Their discarded girlfriends should be interviewed as well.

    • WTP said, on October 29, 2015 at 10:14 am

      psychiatric evaluations by a team of well-respected shrinks

      Oh, yes. By all means. Let us find a team of unbiased, apolitical, and sane shrinks. Now all we need is a team of people to find those shrinks. Who would make up that unimpeachable, pure in all thought group? Perhaps we need a committee to form the committee to pick the shrinks. I can see where you’ve really thought this through. Of course the definition of crazy would need to fall in line with your interpretation of such. After all, totalitarian regimes don’t hardly ever use psychology as a tool of oppression.

      Anyone taking such an idea seriously really should have her head examined.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2015 at 12:45 pm

        You could pick them.

        • WTP said, on October 29, 2015 at 1:35 pm

          I don’t think that would be possible. Such creatures only exist in the minds of drunks, children, and certain philosophers,

      • nailheadtom said, on October 29, 2015 at 8:34 pm

        Come on, doctors of psychiatry are the products of essential academia, licensed by the state to investigate the mental workings of all manner of humans from refusal-to-potty-train toddlers to serial killers. A simple interview would enable them to determine if some candidate was a statesman-in-the-making, a pathological liar or an outright megalomaniac. Since their evaluation wouldn’t be binding on the voters, just as testimony of a similar sort won’t necessarily influence the verdict of a jury, what harm could it do? We need educated experts to describe Trump’s hyperegoism and Mrs. Bill Clinton’s odd aversion to the truth, just as we have unlicensed pundits like David Brooks and Charles Blow broadcasting their own variety of rants.

        • wtp said, on October 29, 2015 at 9:59 pm

          You are kidding, right? Do you not see the circular dependency of a group of people licensed by the state making decisions about who is fit to run the state? Do you really think such a process would be devoid of politics? Hell, if I dig around a bit I can point you to a shrink or two, certified by the state (of California or Oregon, can’t recall which) that I ran across on the ‘net a few years back who were convinced that Bush was behind 9/11.

          A high school friend of mine is a psychiatrist. I used to go to parties and talk with some of his associates. My mother suffered from dementia. I’ve met with and discussed various issues with a few psychiatrists. I found some of them to be rather disturbing. I mentioned this to my doctor in passing once and he told me stories of an egotistical associate he stopped consulting with because the guy was over the top.

          My wife and I have a little game we play when one of us reads a news story about someone doing something crazy. We read the story then ask the other to guess the background of the crazy perp. It’s always a psychology student, graduate, or PhD. Not all, but a very large percentage of those who go into shrinkology as a profession have a mental problem they are trying to work out. And I’ve much suspected that a good number of the saner ones have relatives with mental issues.

          What you are looking for is a God or a Daddy to protect you. The reality is we are on our own. We have to take responsibility for ourselves and for our decisions, specifically here as to who our leaders should be. Outsourcing that responsibility is surrendering your freedom.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2015 at 12:27 pm

      That would be reality TV gold. You need an agent. 🙂

  6. TJB said, on October 29, 2015 at 7:36 am

    Mike, any comment? Unlike Ben Carson’s crackpot idea–which we all know will never happen–this is real and happening now.

    Last week, a coalition of 72 feminist and civil rights groups—including the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Organization for Women—asked the Department of Education to crack down on Yik Yak. Civil rights laws require schools to address campus harassment against marginalized student groups, and in 2010, the DOE reminded schools that they’re responsible for student harassment that’s communicated online, too. Now, the coalition wants the DOE to update its recommendations again and “promptly issue guidelines to universities and colleges” on how to “protect students from harassment and threats based on sex, race, color, or national origin carried out via Yik Yak and other anonymous social media applications.”


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 29, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Schools should have guidelines for student behavior, but you do raise a very reasonable concern about the form these guidelines should take and where they should originate. I’m fine with the DOE having a set of defensible guides that public universities should follow-for example, rules against coercing students into sex in return for grades or career advancement are fine. However, like you, the idea of schools are responsible for policing social media seems problematic. The threats to the freedom of speech are rather clear.

      Some university administrators have adopted a panic mode system-they panic over any possibility of a law suit and crack down with extreme prejudice. We have seen this in some of the responses to campus assault (such as suggestions that all it takes is an accusation for a student to be expelled).

      One problem is that folks on the left often agree with these sorts of things while also condemning attacks on freedom of speech from the right. This is moral inconsistency. As such, I am against the “PC policing” that is occurring on some campuses and in society in general. People do have the right to be free of actual harassment and threats, but there is no right to not be offended.

      I am also concerned about casting universities as law enforcement. Having schools handle assault, harassment and such is deeply problematic and violations of the law should be handled by the legal system.

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