On Unrestricted “Free Speech”/“Open Debate” and its Effect on Underrepresentation and Free Speech Itself

A response in a discussion

12 min readAug 6, 2020

I, too, was interested in attending UChicago for the principles that you value (although I always thought about this particular principle as rigourous inquiry in the pursuit of truth, not as unrestricted free speech / open debate). We probably agree with each other on some of what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in “The Coddling of the American Mind”. Still, I hope your viewpoints on free speech and on underrepresentation consider what I discuss below.

TL;DR: I think what free speech / open debate (near-)absolutists must consider further are the nuances, the higher-order effects, the externalities of unrestricted free speech. I think if we take a more-than-surface-level look into free speech and open debate, we’ll find the pesky truth and the great irony that “unrestricted” free speech likely restricts certain speech.

In abstract, it probably seems like a fine idea to have all kinds of parties say anything — truly, anything — they’d like to, and that from these discussions, these parties would arrive at better ideas and better solutions. Awful comments could be responded to, and the better ideas would win. Free speech / open debate is a messy process, but it’s necessary for freedom and for a better world. That’s the theory, right?

In reality, things work out differently. Firstly, and surely, there are obvious restrictions to be made. For instance, why would any university bother to invite/allow a Holocaust denier to a debate on campus? In addition to the disrespect to victims, resources are scarce. Why bother spending time and money to put on such an event when more worthwhile (and less vile) discussions can be had instead? I’m honestly not sure if you agree with me on this.

Secondly, based on what I’ve studied and researched, the world is yet messier than the abstract concept of free speech / open debate that I described above. To be frank, I think it is naïve to think that it’s merely the choice of an individual that leads that individual away from studying or working in a certain field. During undergrad, I studied Organizational Behaviour. What I learned is that, often, the main reason why employees leave their jobs is not because they are not fitting enough or skilled enough to do their job. Many people don’t leave their work; they leave their managers (and colleagues).

I am sure that there are people who do not apply to certain academic/work positions or who do not accept admission because they put so high a price on their own dignity that they will refuse to subject themselves to the toxic environment in a field of interest, even if they believe they can contribute to that field and can do at least a bit to detoxify the environment. (And so, these individuals benefit from this choice, but society does not.) I am sure that this happens, because I am one of these people. Let me show you how it works: I chose to specialize in Organizational Behaviour over my original first choice specialization: Finance. It wasn’t because I was unqualified or even marginally better at OB, no; I got a 93 in Intro to Finance (among the highest in my section + my highest grade in a mandatory course of my major) and I got only a 78 in Intro to OB.

I do not regret my choice. I had so many interests and options, but life is short, I hate drama, and I want to deal with “better” problems (opportunity costs!). So, of my interests, I chose one option that was bound to actually give me the respect I’d earn as a skilled professional and the respect I’d always deserve as a human being. In my female-dominated field of OB, I faced no sex-based harassment and no discrimination. Meanwhile, scores of women in my school who studied Finance reported that they experienced or witnessed harassment, discrimination, and even sexual assault by other people in Finance. (Anecdotal, but arguably not unbelievable to believe the differences in the general state of the two fields.)

And now, again, I’ve been facing a similar quandary as I consider my career options. Do I want to become an economist? Becoming an economist means that I will probably have to deal with (or try my best to ignore) the annoying sexism and vile misogyny, as well as the racism, present in the economics profession. And, I’ll be honest, even if I do decide I want to become an economist, I know I would not bother applying to UChicago Econ (more on that later). So, in terms of voluntary academic/occupational choice, how do we define the words “voluntary” and “choice”?

It may very well be my “choice” not to become an economist, but it would never be my choice that there exist conditions that drive me away from economics. When I first learned about internal and external loci of control (also in OB), I thought I’d be silly or weak to let others deter me from fulfilling my goals. Surely, I had such a strong internal locus of control. I could do anything. But I am no longer so foolish to believe that external factors do not play a role in the outcome of events in our lives. I think we all have to think about the ways that we as individuals shape our environments, which, in turn, have an impact on other individuals.

This is how female economists are talked about on a well-known econ forum, EJMR, where free speech is arguably too unrestricted: https://twitter.com/i/events/898687845627555840

A sample of what’s in that thread:

If you want to check it out yourself, search EJMR for “Esther Duflo” or “Lisa Cook”. (And, tell me again, whose issues have to be worked out?)

Maybe I’m not understanding something, but I’m confused as to how you can reconcile “in no way am I advocating for a free pass for discrimination and harassment” with “I will say that it is a person’s own choice not to pursue study in certain fields” (which was a response to my points about harassment driving away certain groups of people from pursuing certain fields of study/work). A toxic environment caused and excused by unrestricted free speech / open debate may not be the sole factor when making decisions on academic/occupational field all the time, but it is a factor — I’m sure a too prevalent one. Is that not enough to prove that these choices are not merely voluntary? The magnitude of the effect of the cesspool present in the economics profession on academic/occupational choice is very likely not zero. This is why we cannot measure discrimination or underrepresentation if we control for choice of field. Choice of field is an endogenous variable, is it not? Choice of field is also caused by toxic, discriminatory environments (that are, by the way, hinted at through statistics on underrepresentation). The outcome variable itself affects an explanatory variable that’s valid and worth looking into but that people dismiss as a fixed effect. (Something like that. Someone, let me know if this doesn’t make sense.)

Now, this bears repeating: I think if we take a more-than-surface-level look into free speech and open debate, we’ll find the pesky truth and the great irony that “unrestricted” free speech likely restricts certain speech. This table is from an AEA climate survey, administered by the National Opinion Research Center at UChicago (page 11, but other tables are illuminating):


In the real world, resources (time, seats/positions, funding, emotional labour, etc.) are scarce. In the situations that the AEA asked about, I wonder whom free speech (near-)absolutists would care to defend more. Whose voices do free speech (near-)absolutists care to amplify more? Whose ideas are given more merit?

Can “unrestricted/open” debates and dialogue truly be considered “unrestricted/open” when there are gatekeepers to these debates and dialogues who drive away certain parties from even entering the debate?

Perhaps there can never and will never be a state of truly free speech. So, how can we reach an optimal state of free speech — and not for the sake of free speech itself, but rather for the sake of something more productive, such as rigourous inquiry in the pursuit of truth?

And, in this regard, I actually do think UChicago should “fundamentally transform what ‘free speech’ and ‘open debate and dialogue’ look like”.

Case in Point: The UChicago Economics Department

According to former and current UChicago students:

  • A UChicago Econ professor said to a student during office hours, “I see you like it on your knees; women do.” (She had been sitting on the floor because the room was crowded.)
  • A UChicago Econ professor repeatedly called a female student “porn girl” after she made a point about sin taxes.
  • A UChicago Econ professor said in the first class of a course he taught (as the prof of the only intro-level economics class offered to non-majors), “Maybe the ladies should drop the class and take something easier like gender studies.” (One student in one of these classes did drop the class, and decided to study Statistics instead of Economics. Statistics later became her major.)
  • A UChicago Econ professor commented on his “personal tastes/preferences” regarding the looks and clothing of his first-year (teenage!) female students. (If you look like Penelope Cruz, it seems he’ll like your looks.)
  • A UChicago Econ professor, during his convocation speech, made a “joke” about the University climate survey on sexual harassment and assault, saying, “You’ve been able to rub elbows with some of the greatest minds in the world. And judging by the recent campus climate survey, that’s not the only thing you’ve been rubbing up against.” (A Humanities professor, voted on by the graduating class was supposed to give the convocation speech but was busy. It seems that UChicago chose this “rubbing up” dude to be the substitute.)
  • A UChicago Econ professor made “jokes” about MLK, and singled out a Black student, asking him whether he felt offended by the “joke”.

Almost all of these acts were committed by the same professor, who has been at the University for over 35 years. There is even an anonymous tip line, about his (and only his) behaviour, that was circulated in an undergrad Facebook group, where you can find more complaints.

Some receipts: http://macromomblog.com/2020/07/29/economics-is-a-disgrace/, https://twitter.com/juliabodson/status/1276234076861710340, https://twitter.com/bocar_a/status/1271280963985817600

Perhaps some people might think these students do not deserve to feel offended. But I would argue that at least some of these students would have every right to say that they even felt “unsafe”. (The AEA survey also has a section on physical harassment and assault. By the way, AEA annual meeting interviews used to be held in hotel bedrooms. The AEA banned them less than one year ago. VoLuNtArY academic/occupational ChOiCe.) Also, if it seems that we both agree that harassment is a problem that must be dealt with, surely, we can agree that harassment and what people like me refer to as “toxic environments” are also determinants of people’s “voluntary” choice of field? I’m bringing up this point again because, really, what self-respecting person wants to deal with a professor or supervisor or advisor or colleague who keeps saying—without consequence—the type of bull listed above? But fReE sPeEcH, aMiRiTe?!

With regard to people who “feel ‘offended’” by such “little” / “harmless” / “in good fun” / “just a joke” / “not that bad” comments — so much so that they decide to pursue another field of study/occupation — I strongly disagree that it is merely “their own issue to work out”. If there are so many of these types of comments, said by so many people, there is a problem. What are the solutions so often proposed? “Just ignore them; they’re idiots.” “Don’t play the victim.” “Don’t victimize yourself.” “Get over it.” “Get a backbone.” “You shouldn’t care about what others think about you.” None of these approaches solve the root problem.

It sounds to me like the issue that actually needs to be worked out is the professors’ inappropriate behaviour. Another issue that also really needs to be worked out is the complacency of the University that leads to such a toxic environment in the economics profession, particularly in the University’s own Economics department.

But alas, this is UChicago, the bastion of unrestricted free speech at the expense of human dignity and at the expense of the potential contributions and the greater diversity of thought of the people shut out or harassed away from certain fields of study.


Our Delusions

I wonder about a counterfactual world where individuals and institutions had done more in the decades prior to welcome and retain students of underrepresented demographics, such as by creating environments that optimize free speech. I wonder about a counterfactual world where people did not excuse the individuals who — and institutions that — create and normalize environments that are hostile or otherwise disrespectful to certain people. Where people do not dismiss others’ experiences by suggesting all too convenient (and likely not very valid) explanations like “I will say that it is a person’s own choice not to pursue study in certain fields. If they are ‘offended’ by what someone has to say, that is their own issue to work out.”

In this counterfactual world, I don’t think people would have to be as tough as Esther Duflo to want to become an economist and, as an economist, want to do work that brings about all the fame and attention she has gotten.

I don’t think Lisa Cook, who wrote such an enlightening and original paper (on how violence in the Jim Crow-era depressed African-Americans’ inventive activity, measured by expected versus actual number of filed patents), would have had this paper rejected from all of the top 5 economics journals. I don’t think she would have had to persist for nearly a decade to get this paper from completion to publication (essentially finished in 2005, published in 2014, because economists can be so ignorant about history that they somehow did not know what “former slave” meant and required her to write a Black history paper on top of her economics paper and made her show proof of things that she probably shouldn’t have needed to prove).

I don’t think UChicago would have had — what is it? — zero(?) Black faculty in its Econ department.

I don’t think Janet Yellen’s expertise would have been dismissed by men who were more interested in hearing what her husband thought.

I don’t think Betsey Stevenson would have ever been called a fucking bitch — and I don’t think she would have had to remind herself that it’s not okay to be called that.

I don’t think Justin Wolfers would have had to endure so much disrespect.

I don’t think Sadie T.M. Alexander would have been as unknown to the public as she is now.

I don’t think the Sadie Collective would have had to have been founded two years ago.

I don’t think thousands of economists would have had to witness the mistreatment of their friends, colleagues, students, etc., including mistreatment from incidents caused by those who do get off scot-free because a school seems to care more about surface-level free speech than the well-being and empowerment of those who have quieter voices.

I don’t think people would have had so traditional and narrow a definition of economics that they would not understand all that economics can help us discover, and I don’t think that people would have shut out and silenced those with valuable, novel, and illuminating perspectives like Lisa Cook’s (and then disparage her on EJMR because, of course, it must’ve been her fault that it took so long to get her paper published).

Like you, I would indeed like to live in a world where it is “a person’s own choice not to pursue study in certain fields”. But now that I’ve provided some of the receipts, perhaps you’ll understand why such an “explanation” is but a fantasy and why “unrestricted” free speech leads to exclusion and restricts speech itself.

Personally, I’d like to live in a world in which the Federal Reserve Chair can wear pink dresses and glittery stilettos and bold makeup while talking economic policy AND, without question, while getting the proper respect that she would earn as an expert and the respect she would always deserve as a human being. Now, what are the chances of that happening within the next few centuries? I wonder what all the people like her might study instead.

This could’ve been better edited, there might be typos (I don’t know) and, ideally, I’d have all my citations here, but right now I am tired—also for reasons much like the ones that led me away from studying Finance.




Thoughts of a policy student. Still learning…