Libertarians love the First Amendment. We staunchly oppose the suppression of speech and government censorship of any kind. We believe all ideas should be treated equally under the law. We believe that no one should control public access to information or have power to prevent the people from peacefully voicing their opinions.
But when it comes to public education, where, if anywhere, should we draw the line? Not all ideas are created equal—creationism, conspiracy theories, and just plain old bad information might draw support from some to not be taught at all.
Turning Point USA recently produced a video exposing Marquette University for using text books written by domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. The video seeks to prove that the students, when informed who Ayers is, are disgusted at the thought of their university promoting the ideas of a man who has blown up buildings in the name of peace. The video doesn’t mention that, despite his propensity for violence, Ayers also taught for 23 years at the University of Illinois Chicago and is considered an expert in education.
Does the bad cancel the good? Should his “expert” opinion be discredited because of his propensity for violence? Those are philosophical questions for another day, because I think the most valuable question this video raises is one of censorship: is public pressure on a university to cease using certain research material censorship?
If a university is promising a certain quality of education, and the professors are not meeting that standard of quality, then the university should, to some degree, have the ability to ensure the students are receiving what they paid for. But if the majority of students are upset by their political science department endorsing Marxism, should the department head consider teaching new ideas? If indeed the students at Marquette are outraged by the use of Bill Ayers textbooks, should the university have the power to change the curriculum?
Universities controlling the content of a professor’s classroom sets a dangerous precedent. We shouldn’t have university administrators moderating scholastic content for the same reasons we don’t want Internet restrictions: you can’t have an informed opinion in the absence of full information.
Recent Wisconsin field representative for the Leadership Institute, Hans Schulzke, sees no problem with Marquette using text books written by Bill Ayers. He holds that teachers should in all cases be given the autonomy to decide their curriculum:
“Why not [let the professors choose]? You have to come from some perspective. Is it any more legitimate for us to say communists shouldn’t have books used to teach courses than it is for them to say libertarian textbooks shouldn’t be used? Let controversy be taught, and let the professors choose their curriculum. It’s no more legitimate for our mobs to pressure their academics than it is for their mobs to pressure our academics. Let the professors determine their curriculum and teach.”
The universities chose the staff they hire, and the students chose the school they attend and the courses they take. It is not feasible for a professor to teach all perspectives, and provided that the material they chose is on topic, they should have the freedom to decide what is taught. We cannot stifle radical content we fear will spread controversy without violating the letter and spirit the First Amendment—and the purpose of the university in the first place.