Spend much time in American colleges and universities and you’ll be become intimately familiar with statements that begin “I support free speech, but . . . ” In other words, schools will proudly proclaim their dedication to free speech and academic freedom often while simultaneously maintaining and enforcing speech codes — policies that unlawfully restrict or prohibit constitutionally protected speech.
To take one example, the University of Michigan — one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities – in one policy condemns “bias-related incidents” such as “making fun” of a “person’s accent” or “insulting . . . someone’s traditional manner of dress or geographic origin.” Yet the university then declares, in an entirely different policy: “Expression of diverse points of view is of the highest importance, not only for those who espouse a cause or position and then defend it, but also for those who hear and pass judgment on that defense. The belief that an opinion is pernicious, false, or in any other way detestable cannot be grounds for its suppression.”
First, the good news: There’s solid support for free speech as an abstract concept. An overwhelming 93 percent of students believe it is “very” or “somewhat” important to “protect free speech on campus.” Even better, 72 percent of students agreed that “protecting the right to free speech and open exchange of ideas” is more important than to “making sure no one is offended by what others say.” A solid 64 percent strongly or somewhat agree that “political correctness and oversensitivity makes it difficult to openly talk about culture, gender, race, ethnicity, discrimination, or racism.”
The instant that free speech starts to look like a ‘bias-related incident,’ students start supporting censorship.
In general, the more specific the questions got, the more support for free speech evaporated. For instance, while 77 percent of students believed that students should be “allowed to fly the gay pride flag,” only 41 percent believed that students should be permitted to fly the Confederate flag. Only 42 percent said students “should be allowed” to use names such as “redneck,” “Bible thumper,” and “Uncle Tom.” In other words — to borrow the University of Michigan’s language — the instant that free speech starts to look like a “bias-related incident,” students start supporting censorship.
Perhaps most troubling of all, students expressed surprising levels of support not only for universal, mandatory sensitivity training (48 percent supporting, 41 percent opposing); they also largely endorse the far Left’s favorite theory justifying censorship, that speech can equal violence. Disturbingly, 53 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that “choosing to use or not use certain words can constitute an act of violence.”
Thus, we can begin to reconcile the seemingly contradictory results. Perhaps students aren’t confused at all. Perhaps they’re merely good learners. Colleges by word and deed teach students that there is “free speech” — the speech they find valuable enough to protect — and “not speech,” the expression they really, really don’t like. The gay pride flag? Speech. The Confederate flag? Violence.In 2012, my friend and former colleague, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff, published Unlearning Liberty, a book that comprehensively describes how colleges and universities are teaching students the “wrong lessons” — that they can convince themselves that they’re for “free speech” but simply against “harassment” or “incivility” or “intolerance,” with those exceptions so broadly defined that they swallow the free-speech rule. In case after case, colleges punish free speech, all while assuring their student bodies that they’re merely protecting them from discrimination and harassment. As the YAF poll shows, the students have learned their lessons well. Free speech is the speech they like. Everything else? It just might be violence.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.