John Leo may have retired his column at U. S. News, but he’s still very much at work. Witness Leo’s superb new piece from City Journal, “Free Inquiry? Not on Campus.” This is a powerful and very useful overview of the history and range of challenges to free speech at our universities. Title notwithstanding, the scariest and most important thing about Leo’s piece is what it shows about the drift of anti-First Amendment sentiment out of campuses and into the American mainstream. The corruption of the ACLU by interest groups is part of the story. Still more disturbing is the tale of a recent decision by the infamous Ninth Circuit Court. And Leo reminds us that Clinton administration officials like Norma Cantu and Donna Shalala have been at the forefront of those who would sacrifice free speech to political correctness.
So the notion that we can safely write off our college campuses with an eye-roll is mistaken. The damage sustained by the ethos of free speech in the academy eventually seeps out and infects the country at large. It is entirely plausible to imagine that the sort of radical paring back of free speech we’re already seeing in Europe (another story chronicled by Leo) could happen here as well. Irish priests threatened with prosecution for quoting the Pope’s opposition to gay marriage, or Muslims using speech codes to punish the Danish cartoons, all of these things are possible in America as well. If a federal circuit court, high officials in an American president’s administration, and even the ACLU can be “turned,” then a “bluer” America could easily morph into a Europe-style anti-free speech zone.
My only disappointment with Leo’s article is his omission of any discussion of Michele Foucault. Leo covers the late-1960′s intellectual roots of the challenge to free speech in Herbert Marcuse’s concept of “repressive tolerance.” Leo also mentions Catherine MacKinnon’s anti-free speech feminism. But the most popular and influential intellectual force against free speech on campus today is the work of French post-moderninst, Michele Foucault. True, unlike Marcuse and MacKinnon, Foucault does little to directly attack the ethos of free speech. Yet Foucault’s enormously influential work amounts to a comprehensive assault on the intellectual underpinnings of classic liberalism. Foucault is the intellectual patriarch of today’s identity interest groups (even if a deeper trend of his complex thought eschews identity politics and veers toward nihilism and paralysis). This doesn’t cut at anything Leo says. I’m simply noting that the intellectual challenge to classic liberal ideas on campus remains fresh and pervasive. We’re not talking about a mere hangover from Marcuse’s influence in the late sixties. We’re dealing with continuing waves of intellectual challenge to the very underpinnings of liberalism and free speech.