Politics & Policy

Free Speech (If No One Objects)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Getty Images)

When, this spring, Brandeis University reneged on its commencement invitation to human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it revealed the cravenness that characterizes many of America’s leading institutions of higher education. The decision of Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program to invite Hirsi Ali to New Haven as part of its speaker series has exposed the same quality in many of that school’s students.

In an open letter sent to Buckley Program student leaders, members of 35 campus groups say they feel “highly disrespected” by the September 15 lecture “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West.” The letter, drafted by the Muslim Students Association, lays out their complaints. They are concerned that “Ms. Hirsi Ali is being invited to speak as an authority on Islam despite the fact that she does not hold the credentials to do so.” They accuse Hirsi Ali of “hate speech” and express outrage that she should “have such a platform in our home.” “We cannot overlook,” they write, “how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies.”

Their remedy, of course, is censorship. The letters’ signees propose in Hirsi Ali’s stead, or alongside her, a speaker with “representative scholarly qualifications.” Presumably the Muslim Students Association would get to decide who has the appropriate “qualifications” to speak about Islam at Yale. As for the matter of potential “hate speech,” that can be easily avoided if Hirsi Ali will agree to “speak only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.”

These groups claim “to act on Yale’s fundamental values of freedom of speech and diversity of thought,” but they are, of course, interested in no such things. Freedom of speech and diversity of thought are agreeable insofar as the speech spoken and the thoughts pondered are agreeable to the Muslim Students Association/Women’s Center/Black Students Alliance/other acceptable grievance lobby. Verboten is speech that transgresses select political orthodoxies.

More to the point, though, the students backing this censorship — Ivy Leaguers, the best and the brightest, the cream of America’s intellectual crop — seem to have no notion whatsoever that much of the purpose of education is precisely to discomfit and discompose. The great teachers were great questioners (see: Socratic Method) who understood that exposing shoddy habits of mind and training critical faculties are impossible if all one ever hears is confirmation of prior beliefs. Even the most enthusiastic Ivy League shill should know that spending $55K a year to have one’s presuppositions obsequiously endorsed is a waste. But in our age of studious political correctness, where the inmates write the asylum’s curriculum, these students are happy to insulate themselves against any opinions from beyond the Old Campus Quad.

The Buckley Program has stated that Hirsi Ali will speak as planned, and they do not intend to invite a pre-approved counterpoint. That is as it should be. To yield to the petitions of these aggrieved student groups would only facilitate the evaporation of intellectual diversity at one of America’s premier institutions of learning.

At least a few Yalies are still interested in Lux et Veritas.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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