In his inaugural Phi Beta Cons post, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Robert Shibley wrote about some of the threats to free speech on American campuses. In recent months and years, a dangerous kind of political correctness has permeated colleges and universities. This brand of PC has stifled open and honest debate by silencing speakers and public figures whose views happen to clash with some (usually left-wing) campus constituency. Rather than listen to “the other side” present his or her point of view, such campus groups want their avowed enemies banned and blacklisted.
Unfortunately, that barbaric mob mentality was on full display recently when Brandeis University rescinded its decision to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree.
Hirsi Ali’s story is a remarkable one. Growing up in abject poverty in Somalia, she survived genital mutilation at the age of five and narrowly escaped a life of subservience in an arranged marriage. Eventually fleeing to The Netherlands, she pursued a career in politics and became a courageous supporter of women’s rights and a critic of what she views as Islam’s degradation of women. Her bold words have brought death threats, and she is now accompanied by bodyguards everywhere she goes. Brandeis University officials deemed Hirsi Ali’s life’s work to be worthy of recognition and praise.
Soon after Brandeis’s announcement, however, a petition surfaced which claimed that some of Hirsi Ali’s work amounted to “hate speech” and that her presence would make other students feel “uncomfortable” because she doesn’t depict Islam as a “religion of peace.” The petition eventually garnered 6,000 signatures (including those of 85 faculty members). Even the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) weighed in, calling Hirsi Ali a “notorious Islamaphobe.” The pressure was too great, and Brandeis University reneged on its decision to grant an honorary degree and to allow Hirsi Ali to speak on campus.
In today’s Pope Center feature, George Leef blasts Brandeis’s decision to yield to the petitioners. For Leef, the disinvitation “shows that a new and dangerous approach to intellectual conflict is setting in among our colleges and universities – the idea that if a speaker’s statements (or mere presence) sufficiently outrages opponents, that’s a good reason to say, ‘No, we don’t want you here.’ This is worse than allowing the ‘heckler’s veto’ because the mere assertion of hurt feelings and threat of conflict now suffices to silence someone.”
Leef argues that university officials should ignore intimidation tactics and groups that want to shun someone merely because they disagree with him or her. Officials should instead stand up for free speech and create an atmosphere of open debate and intellectual vibrancy.
Refreshingly, the biggest critics of Brandeis University’s decision and the biggest proponents of free speech on campus have come from the Right–both conservatives and libertarians, including Phi Beta Cons contributor and Brandeis alumnus Avi Snyder. This is as it should be. As Shibley wrote in his post, “The conservative solution must be the continuous, untiring, and utterly principled insistence that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ must be open to all the intellectual products available.”