On Free Speech at Yale

From an opinion column I wrote in 2009, when the stakes of free speech on campus seemed much lower:

When [Alexis de Tocqueville] pronounced that “there is no freedom of mind in America,” he was fully aware of the equality of persons and lack of political oppression that Americans enjoy then and now. Nor did he mean it as an unmixed complaint; he admired the fact that — at that time at least — atheism and scurrilous sexuality could find no foothold in the American public sphere.

Tocqueville meant his critique as a warning that, like economic markets, the “marketplace of ideas” must be regulated if people are to flourish, and that Americans’ love of free speech — or, rather, of the term “free speech” — can lead to a dangerous state of intellectual laissez-faire, in which sensationalism and modishness take the place of good sense and sobriety. (His uncharacteristically unrealistic suggestion was that the authority of the Church might fill the regulatory gap.) Tocqueville knew that a neutral realm of discourse could not exist, that we choose between the overt influence of censorship and the invisible influence of the half-unconscious attitudes of a culture.

Six years ago, the idea that discipline on campus speech might be imposed not by the administration, but by students, could not have occurred to me.

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