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Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The (Former) Free Speech Crisis?



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Following up on John’s post below, I had to comment on the New York Times’ functionally dishonest use of Greg Lukianoff’s accurate statement that the campus free speech picture had improved since the “low points of the 1990s.”

Let’s flash back to the early 1990s (I remember those times well; that was when I was being booed, hissed, and shouted down in my law school classes). The speech code was emerging on the scene, disrupting conservative speech was fashionable and common, and–critically– students had nowhere to turn. Alan Charles Kors had only just launched the libertarian counterattack at Penn, FIRE did not yet exist, and the Alliance Defense Fund was little more than a single employee, a desk, and a phone.

Fast forward fifteen years and not only are conservative students fighting back, they finally have the tools to do so. FIRE has emerged as the critical voice for free speech, and through ADF and others, students can now launch systematic and comprehensive court challenges to unlawful acts. Speech problems that were hardly on the national radar screen can now dominate the local news, leak into national news, and even spawn high quality documentary films. In other words, there’s hope (for a change). But does that mean there is not a present crisis? As Greg notes in his response to the NYT, FIRE provided the reporter with comprehensive information regarding the increased prevalence of speech codes and documentation of dozens of grotesque violations of student speech rights.

While this is an extreme analogy, the Times’ take on the problem is a bit like writing a story after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education and instead of focusing on the enormous challenges facing the desegregation effort, the paper instead emphasizes the “nuance” of Jim Crow and quotes Thurgood Marshall as “acknowledging that civil rights have expanded since the early 1930s.” When it comes to censorship, there should be no patience for “nuance,” and when it comes to progress, the emergence of hope cannot justify complacency.



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