The Idea of the Marketplace

Apologies for the lack of blogging for the past week. We had this minor disturbance of a hurricane, and then I went to a conference in Chicago to present my paper on federalism and judicial review.

My topic today is the highlight of that conference, a keynote address by Robert Post, Dean of the Yale Law School. Dean Post spoke about academic freedom, and how (American) courts struggle to understand it and integrate in the the First Amendment jurisprudence. Dean Post as expressed much the same ideas in a brief essay, “Discipline and Freedom in the Academy”, (2012) 65 Ark. L. Rev. 203 (which will, presumably, be available on the Review’s website in some not too distant future), and in a book he published this year (which I haven’t yet looked at). There is a lot of food for thought there, but I would like to focus on one specific claim.

One source of difficulty that courts have with figuring out the true meaning of academic freedom, says Dean Post, comes from the interference of the notion of the “marketplace of ideas.” It is a staple of the American free speech jurisprudence; and of course it sounds intuitively relevant to a discussion of universities, since they are in the ideas business. Unfortunately, this intuition is misguided, according to Dean Post. In the “Discipline and Freedom” paper, he writes that “[t]he marketplace of ideas is designed … to eliminate content discrimination. It is supposed to enshrine an equality in the field of ideas.” But there is, and can be, no such equality in academia, or in any setting that is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, especially of expertise, the institutionalized sort of knowledge universities are charged with producing. Academic disciplines recognize claims as true or false; arguments as valid or not. A university (as well as, say, a scientific journal) must be able to say that some ideas are brilliant and others rotten, and it does so all the time―when hiring a would-be professor, when granting him or her tenure, etc. Importing the notion of the marketplace of ideas into the academic setting contributes to the belief that academics are free to say whatever they please, but that’s nonsense. Once we understand that the purpose of universities is not to foster an equality of ideas but to generate expertise, we also understand, concludes Dean Post, that academic freedom is really the freedom of the academic profession to judge its members and their output by the standards of truth and validity it sets itself.

This is just a bare-bones sketch of one of the lines in Dean Post’s rich argument. I hope it is fair to him, even if it surely does not do it justice. Dean Post’s idea that universities, and the production of knowledge more generally, require discipline and judgment about what is true and valid, and what is not, seems obviously right to me. And I think Dean Post is right too that there is a danger in relying on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to develop a jurisprudence of academic freedom. But the danger is not exactly the one he sees. It is not that the marketplace of ideas is an inapt metaphor for describing the production of knowledge, but that it is a complex one, and easily misunderstood. Dean Post, I am afraid, it guilty of misunderstanding it in two ways.

First, a marketplace isn’t a place of equality. If the market is free, then everyone is equal in the sense of being legally able (which is of course not to say capable, or inclined) to enter it as a buyer or a seller. But not every seller will be successful, because every seller competes against other sellers of the same or similar products. Some products fare well; others do not. If the market is free, it is the preferences of the buyers, rather than the decisions of the government, that determine who succeeds and who fails. The marketplace of ideas is no different. It is not a place of equality. Some ideas are accepted, others rejected. When we rely on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas in discussing freedom of speech, we imply that this particular marketplace must remain a free one, in the sense that the preferences of the “buyers”―the readers, the listeners, etc.―determine which “products”―ideas―succeed, and which fail. The government cannot pick winners here, or erect barriers to entry, or even engage in much of the regulation that we consider acceptable in other markets.

Second, the market doesn’t consist just of individual sellers and buyers. In most markets, (most) sellers (and often buyers, but the demand side is less important here) are firms. And firms, as Ronald Coase pointed out in his brilliant paper on “The Nature of the Firm“, do not function internally according to the market principles of free competition at all. They are like islands of central planning, little command economies, even as their relationships with each other are structured according to market principles. The reason for this, Coase explains, is that on (relatively) small scales, command economies are actually more efficient than markets, because they avoid transaction costs. What about the marketplace of ideas then? Does it too have its “firms”―organizations which, internally, are not structured on free market principles? Arguably, Dean Post’s insight about universities not obeying marketplace of ideas principles is the equivalent of Coase’s insight about firms―universities are (one sort of) firms in the marketplace of ideas. (Others probably include the institutional press, and perhaps other producers of ideas). Internally, as Dean Post points out, universities or scientific journals are not marketplaces of ideas. But externally, they are producers on the great marketplace of ideas of our society. When, for example, I submit a paper to an academic journal, the journal evaluates it according non-marketplace criteria of truth and validity. But once it decides to publish it, it arrives on a market place of ideas, where it might have to compete against other papers in the same area, which have also passed the tests of truth and validity, and where its success or failure will be measured not by any institutional assessment, but by the interest of the readers and their willingness or not to accept my claims.

Now I’m not yet sure what, if anything, the takeaway from this is. I think that Dean Post’s key insight about the importance of institutional practices of assessment of truth and validity of scientific claims and arguments holds true whether we describe this assessment as taking place outside the marketplace of ideas altogether or within special structures, not organized on marketplace of ideas principles, which are nonetheless themselves part of the marketplace of ideas. My thinking here is still a prototype―I want to show it off, but am not yet ready to put it on the market.

Rants and Freedoms

Some university students think the lecturer whose class they are taking is doing a lousy job. Someone creates a hyperbolically-named Facebook group to rant; others join; a few post derogatory messages on the group’s wall. So far, so normal. But, after the semester ends and the lecturer, for reasons unknown, is no longer employed by the university, she somehow learns of the Facebook group, and complains to the university’s authorities. A kangaroo court is held, and finds the members of the group ― including those who posted no messages at all, and those whose messages were quite innocuous ― guilty of “non-academic misconduct.” Some of the students are required to write an apology letter to the former lecturer and put on probation. An appeal to a higher university instance is fruitless, and the university’s Board of Governors refuses to hear a further appeal. Judicial review and an appeal ensue.

That’s the scary story of Keith and Steven Pridgen, (former) students at the University of Calgary, whose right to rant the Alberta Court of Appeal vindicated in a recent decision. One has to hope that it will serve as a lesson for professors and university administrators (as well as teachers and school principals) in the future. Students, in case such people forget, have always ranted about their professors, and always will. It’s not always nice, and it’s not always fair; get over it. (This is, as much as anything else, a note to self as an aspiring academic.) The fact that rants now leave a digital record does not change anything, it seems to me: just because they used to circulate (and of course still circulate) by word of mouth, rants were no less pervasive and durable in the past. Stories about professors are handed over from one cohort of students to the next; they are an ineradicable part of university’s environment.

Legally, the Alberta Court of Appeal is interesting in a number of ways. Each of the three judges wrote a separate opinion. They all agree in finding the university’s decision unreasonable  and hence invalid on administrative law grounds, because the university’s decision bore little, if any, relationship with the evidence it ought to have been based on ― evidence of harm to the lecturer, or of the specific actions of each accused student. Justice O’Ferrall also finds that the utter failure to consider the students’ free speech rights contributes to making the decision unreasonable. The judges disagree, however, on whether to address the other issue debated by the parties (and several interveners) – the applicability of the Charter, and its guarantee of freedom of expression.

Justice Paperny thinks the question deserves to be addressed, since it was debated at length by the parties and is important; her colleagues disagree, because it is not necessary to the resolution of the case (since it can be resolved on administrative law grounds) and important constitutional questions should not be addressed unless it is necessary to do so. Both arguments have merit; I’m not sure on whose side I would have come out if I had to vote. Justice Paperny devotes much of her opinion to arguing that the Charter does indeed apply to universities, at least in their disciplinary dealings with their students. Her review of the case law is comprehensive, her argument about the universities’ and the government’s roles in contemporary society sometimes sweeping. And it is persuasive (and Justice Paperny’s colleagues, one senses, do not actually disagree with its substance).

One final thought. The court did not pause to consider whether the university even had the power to punish students for something they wrote on Facebook. Yet it seems to me that it’s a crucial jurisdictional question. (Needless to say, the university did not consider it either.) I can see why a university might be interested in what is being said in its lecture halls, or online on forums it maintains (in connection with courses for example). It does have an interest in maintaining a welcoming, respectful learning environment, although arguably this interest does not play out in the same way as a school’s, since everyone at a university is an adult and is there by choice. But does this interest give a university the right to police the conduct of its students off-campus or online? I think not; but in any case, it’s too bad the court did not ask itself the question.