Restoring Campus Free Speech: The Impossible Dream?
“Safety,” as it happens, is a magic word on campus. It has its own special meaning, well beyond legitimate concerns about robbery, sexual assaults, and coercive threats. Some students have stretched the term to mean “I feel unsafe because I disagree with your ideas. So shut up. Right now.”Lipson then offers his remedies:
In this Bizarro World, you can feel unsafe if someone says fracking is a good idea, or that the Constitution protects gun purchases, or offer the opinion that employers should not have to provide free birth control. Crying “unsafe” is the campus equivalent of pulling the fire alarm—but with no sense of what a fire really is and no penalty for false alarms.
Okay, you say, it’s a free country and anybody can voice a complaint, justified or not. Surely, university administrators who receive silly complaints will gently explain that classrooms are supposed to challenge students, supposed to elicit spirited, informed debate, and occasionally prompt students to rethink their views and offer better reasons for them.
If you need to see a psychological counselor, we have them available. If you face any real dangers, tell us immediately, and we will help. Otherwise, do the assignment, develop your own views, buttress them with logic and evidence, and prepare to deal with alternative perspectives.
Oh, you naïve denizen of Earth.
Few administrators would even consider saying that. Today, dean-of-students offices are devoted to comforting delicate snowflakes and soothing their feelings. If that means stamping out others’ speech, too bad.
The deans are typically helped by small bureaucracies with Orwellian titles such as “the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.” The title is deceptive; these offices are ideologically driven. They are not about “including” Chinese-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Jews who support Israel, or evangelical Christians who may feel themselves beleaguered minorities on campus. The diversity police have zero interest in encouraging diverse viewpoints. Instead, they are university-sponsored advocates for approved minorities, approved viewpoints, and approved grievances. Full stop.
The rot has even spread to schools such as the University of Chicago, which has exemplary principles of free speech. Where Chicago slips—where many schools slip—is translating its worthy principles into practice. This year, for example, Palestinian activists disrupted two pro-Israel events on campus, with no consequences.
That’s standard fare across the country. An administrator, charged with protecting students, actually stopped both events after order had been restored. She simply announced the events were over, even though the student sponsors wanted them to continue. Instead of protecting free speech, she squashed it.
She was not alone. A couple of years ago, her colleagues twice admonished students for advertising ordinary debate topics, one on affirmative action, another on illegal immigration. A student had complained that black students were harmed by even discussing affirmative action. Another said Hispanics were injured simply by seeing the phrase “illegal immigration.”
University administrators duly summoned the debate leaders for “sensitivity discussions.” Remember, this is a debate society, these are prominent public issues, and this is a university, a place where ideas should be contested. No matter. After I complained to senior administrators, they actually defended the sensitivity grilling.
Just for fun, imagine a conservative student complaining about a debate titled “Resolved: We should encourage more undocumented immigration.” Is it remotely possible that administrators would summon the debate sponsors and tell them to be more sensitive to students who think illegal immigration is, well, illegal?
Not a chance. Some administrators told me so directly. That means the whole process is not only ludicrous, it is deeply biased against some viewpoints. That’s what “inclusion and diversity” means in practice, not just at Chicago or Northern Colorado but at universities across the country.
What should the administrators have done? They should have told the complaining student, “I’m sorry you are upset, but alternative views, sometimes disturbing ones, are central to your education and a liberal society. We are absolutely committed to protecting you from physical dangers and imminent threats, but not from ideas you don’t like. Here’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s not long. Take 20 seconds and read it. Then, go to the library, read the assigned materials, formulate your arguments, and engage with other students. Who knows? You might learn something.”
That didn’t happen at Northern Colorado. Instead, the complaint went straight to the university’s “Bias Response Team,” and they snapped into action. The teachers, who had done absolutely nothing wrong, were told not to discuss transgender issues again and to avoid stating anyone’s opinions about them, lest it trouble the complaining student.
This was just one of 44 incidents their Bias Response Team handled last year. It is unclear if they want to purchase land in rural China for a much-needed Re-Education Through Labor Camp.
This assault on free discussion is now commonplace on campus. What can be done?
First, university presidents and top administrators must show some intellectual courage. Their boards of trustees should demand to know if free speech is protected on their campuses, in principle and in practice. Then, they should hold the school administrators accountable for results.The problems with Lipson’s prescriptions should be obvious: if colleges were willing to do any of that, they would already have done it.
Second, universities should tell students, beginning with their acceptance letters, that “our school believes in free speech, open debate, and diverse opinions. You will hear different views on controversial topics. You are urged to read, write, and develop your own views, but you may not suppress others.” Stress that core value during orientation week. Urge students who seek shelter from intellectual challenges to go somewhere else.
Third, assign one ranking administrator primary responsibility for ensuring free and open debate on campus. This administrator should have no other responsibilities for student affairs since, experience shows, those other student responsibilities undermine the focus on free speech. He or she should make regular reports to the university president, faculty, and board, just as others do about gender discrimination, physical safety, and other issues.
Fourth, demand that student affairs offices stop suppressing basic academic freedoms and start supporting them. Begin by restoring the rightful meaning of “student safety.” It shouldn’t be distorted to shield students from uncomfortable ideas. In the 1950s, that would have prevented students at Ole Miss from urging racial integration, or even hearing about it in class. Somebody would have been offended.
Finally, let students know that they have every right to protest peacefully. They have every right to hold their own events, opposing what others’ advocate. But they have no right to disrupt others, and they will be punished if they do. Stop coddling rabble-rousers who come to campus specifically to disrupt academic events, as they often do. Universities routinely ignore these problems, despite their corrosive effects.
For example, how about telling students “our school believes in free speech?” Schools already do that. In fact, the University of Chicago already does that. But as Lipson has explained, it doesn’t seem to help.
The same thing applies to “intellectual courage” on the part of top administrators, or oversight by boards of trustees. Are the former all of a sudden going to grow a backbone? Are the latter all of a sudden going to start making “trouble” and disrupt the cozy, clubby ambiance of such boards?
And the idea that any university administration would appoint a bureaucrat whose job was, in effect, to make trouble for all the other bureaucrats who prefer that speech be suppressed is utopian. If any administrator had that official job description, we can be sure he or she would be a toothless tiger.
Get Government InvolvedThe one hope for imposing some tolerance of speech on colleges rests with the Federal government (or perhaps state governments). The Obama Justice and Education departments have been active in bullying colleges to restrict free speech by defining “harassment” so broadly as to cover any statements politically correct types don’t like. It has also bullied schools to restrict the due process rights of males accused of sexual assault.
Justice and Education departments run by conservatives (or those few remaining liberals who believe in free speech) could apply pressure from the opposite direction.
For public universities, the justification is straightforward. Free speech in those places is protected by the First Amendment. In practice, that doesn’t help much, as most students aren’t willing to go to court to vindicate their rights. But Federal regulators could impose punishments (including withdrawal of Federal subsidies) to protect student (and faculty) rights. Whether this would require a change in a statute is a question lawyers have to answer.
The situation with private schools is a bit more complicated, since private colleges have, in fact, a right to restrict speech. Institutions such as Brigham Young and Wheaton College explicitly do that.
Private colleges do not, however, have a right to advertise that they respect free speech, and claim to respect free speech in official documents, and then abridge free speech. Allowing students to complain to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education when their promised free speech is abridged would be a good idea. Private institutions can have their Federal subsidies withheld.
Can This Happen?Can any of this happen? At the national level, getting government involved to protect speech on campus would require a Republican president, and one who is willing to put people committed to speech in key places in the Education and Justice departments. That Republican president would have to be willing to expend some political capital on the enterprise. And Republicans in the House and Senate would have to be willing to expend political capital.
The odds of this happening are essentially nil.
But what about state governments? That is more likely. We have just seen Scott Walker and Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature challenge and defeat the University of Wisconsin on the budget.
Where are the state legislatures (perhaps in the more conservative states) willing to do the same over speech?