Free Speech on Campus Under Socialism

Socialism seeks to make power social, to enrich the lives of ordinary people with democracy and ownership. Just as the workers should own their workplaces and citizens should have decision-making power over law and policy, universities under socialism would operate a bit differently. The states will not own public universities, nor individuals and investors private ones. Such institutions will be owned and managed by the professors, groundskeepers, and other workers. There is a compelling case for at least some student control as well, especially when it comes to free speech controversies.

Broadening student power in university decision-making more closely resembles a consumer cooperative than a worker cooperative, described above and analyzed elsewhere. A consumer cooperative is owned and controlled by those who use it, patrons, rather than workers. This writer’s vision of socialism, laid bare in articles and books, has always centered the worker, and it is not a fully comfortable thought to allow students, merely passing through a college for two, four, or six years and greatly outnumbering the workers, free reign over policy. There is a disconnect here between workers and majority rule, quite unlike in worker cooperatives (I have always been a bit suspicious of consumer co-ops for this reason). However, it is likely that a system of checks and balances (so important in a socialist direct democracy) could be devised. Giving students more power over their place of higher learning is a positive thing (think of the crucial student movements against college investments in fossil fuels today), as this sacred place is for them, but this would have to be balanced with the power of the faculty and staff, who like any other workers deserve control over their workplace. A system of checks and balances, or specialized areas of authority granted to students, may be a sensible compromise. This to an extent already exists, with college students voting to raise their fees to fund desired facilities, and so on.

One specialized area could be free speech policy. Socialism may be a delightful solution to ideological clashes and crises. I have written on the free speech battles on campuses, such as in Woke Cancel Culture Through the Lens of Reason. There I opined only in the context of modern society (“Here’s what I think we should do while stuck in the capitalist system”). The remarks in full read:

One hardly envies the position college administrators find themselves in, pulled between the idea that a true place of learning should include diverse and dissenting opinions, the desire to punish and prevent hate speech or awful behaviors, the interest in responding to student demands, and the knowledge that the loudest, best organized demands are at times themselves minority opinions, not representative.

Private universities are like private businesses, in that there’s no real argument against them cancelling as they please.

But public universities, owned by the states, have a special responsibility to protect a wide range of opinion, from faculty, students, guest speakers, and more, as I’ve written elsewhere. As much as this writer loves seeing the power of student organizing and protest, and the capitulation to that power by decision-makers at the top, public colleges should take a harder line in many cases to defend views or actions that are deemed offensive, in order to keep these spaces open to ideological diversity and not drive away students who could very much benefit from being in an environment with people of different classes, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and politics. Similar to the above, that is a sensible general principle. There will of course be circumstances where words and deeds should be crushed, cancellation swift and terrible. Where that line is, again, is a matter of disagreement. But the principle is simply that public colleges should save firings, censorship, cancellation, suspension, and expulsion for more extreme cases than is current practice. The same for other public entities and public workplaces. Such spaces are linked to the government, which actually does bring the First Amendment and other free speech rights into the conversation, and therefore there exists a special onus to allow broader ranges of views.

But under socialism, the conversation changes. Imagine for a moment that college worker-owners gave students the power to determine the fate of free speech controversies, student bodies voting on whether to allow a speaker, fire a professor, kick out a student, and so forth. This doesn’t solve every dilemma and complexity involved in such decisions, but it has a couple benefits. First, you don’t have a small power body making decisions for everyone else, an administration enraging one faction (“They caved to the woke Leftist mob”; “They’re tolerating dangerous bigots”). Second, the decision has majority support from the student body; the power of the extremes, the perhaps non-representative voices, are diminished. Two forms of minority rule are done away with (this is what socialism aims to do, after all), and the decision has more legitimacy, with inherent popular support. More conservative student bases will make different decisions than more liberal ones, but that is comparable to today’s different-leaning administrations in thousands of colleges across the United States.

Unlike in the excerpt above, which refers to the current societal setup, private and public colleges alike will operate like this — these classifications in fact lose their meanings, as both are owned by the workers and become the same kind of entity. A university’s relationship to free speech laws, which aren’t going anywhere in a socialist society, then needs to be determined. Divorced from ownership by states, institutions of higher learning could fall outside free speech laws, like other cooperatives (where private employers and colleges largely fall today). But, to better defend diverse views, worthwhile interactions, and a deeper education, let’s envision a socialist nation that applies First Amendment protections to all universities (whether that preserved onus should be extended to all cooperatives can be debated another time).

When a university fires a professor today for some controversial comment, it might land in legal trouble, sued for violating First Amendment rights and perhaps forced to pay damages. Legal protection of rights is a given in a decent society. Under socialism, can you sue a student body (or former student body, as these things take a while)? Or just those who voted to kick you out? Surely not, as ballots are secret and you cannot punish those who were for you alongside those against you. Instead, would this important check still be directed against the university? This would place worker-owners in a terrible position: how can decision-making over free speech cases be given to the student body if it’s the worker-owners who will face the lawsuits later? One mustn’t punish the innocent and let the guilty walk. These issues may speak to the importance of worker-owners reserving full power, minority power, to decide free speech cases on campus. Yet if punishment in the future moves beyond money, there may be hope yet for the idea of student power. It may not be fair for a university to pay damages because of what a student body ruled, but worker-owners could perhaps stomach a court-ordered public apology on behalf of student voters, mandated reinstatement of a professor or student or speaker, etc.

With free speech battles, someone has to make the final call. Will X be tolerated? As socialism is built, as punishment changes, it may be worth asking: “Why not the students?”

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