The State of Free Speech on College Campuses Is Dreadful

UCLA campus in 2009. (File photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
FIRE and like-minded groups are here to help.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he Bill of Rights is an essential component of the American founding, helping to ensure that the people determine their government, and not the other way around. For centuries, these provisions have been lauded as the brilliant political philosophy of prudent Founders — indeed, as the only thing standing between the citizenry and a potential tyranny.

One would not know this from spending extended time on a college campus. What are constitutional freedoms to the nouveaux liberals? The subtle instruments of oppression of Dead White Males. What is it to engage in civil discourse — an activity protected by the Bill of Rights — that is contrary to the established doctrines? A heartless, malicious exercise intended to strip away the dignity of the oppressed through the guise of “truth-seeking” and “thought-experimenting.” What matters to these activists, reared by the forces of Marxist social theory, isn’t liberty or freedom — it’s power.

Anecdotally, I can speak to a disturbing event that happened over this past month at Harvard. A friend of mine recently posted a comment to a group chat for the Harvard class of 2023: “UPenn seems to be letting the majority of students come back.” A perfectly innocuous thing to say. But a harsh response immediately followed: “The way in which you all have the privilege to ignore the crises that are affecting the world right now. Coronavirus. White Supremacy and Anti-Blackness. . . . It actually sickens me that you all perpetuate and participate in these asinine conversations when you know we aren’t going back to campus.” My friend attempted to defend herself, asking, in essence: How can you think to shame me for asking a perfectly innocent question? You know nothing about my background, what I’ve been through, or my beliefs.

But the ball was already rolling. Activist bullies started chiming in, shaming my friend for speaking up. When others tried to defend her or to make a broader point about the state of free speech on college campuses, they were drowned out by mindless slogans: “Human rights are not your thought experiment.” “Civil discourse is the language of the oppressor.” Another friend of mine argued that we live in a free country; he, like my first friend, went on to be shamed on Twitter for being “problematic.”

College campuses are in the middle of a cultural cascade. Educators can face massive backlash for even slightly deviating from the activist manifesto, such as by suggesting that the police should not be defunded or by refusing to give special treatment to minorities enrolled in their courses. Students don’t fare much better: A UNC survey finds that 68 percent of college conservatives report needing to self-censor to avoid backlash. And administrators, far from drawing the line at the most egregious instances of speech suppression, pander to the loudest activists, thereby undermining a healthy culture of discourse and inquiry.

It is in this environment that groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) operate. Samantha Harris, a senior fellow at FIRE and a specialist in free speech and Title IX law, spoke with me over the phone last week.

On the progression of campus culture, Harris said:

It has become more stifling, I think. It’s hard to find a concrete measure of the extent to which free speech is suppressed, but it certainly feels like it has become more so. When I first started at FIRE in 2005, free-speech and free-expression crackdowns seemed like they were from the top down; students wanted to express themselves, and administrators were stopping them from doing so. Now, it’s students themselves demanding speech to be repressed, and I think this has a lot to do with the education they receive in grades K–12; specifically, not being taught the value of free speech in a liberal society.

Nonetheless, organizations such as FIRE have a large role to play in combating this problem — not only by helping those denied their freedoms, but by making universities have to think twice about the restrictions they impose on speech and expression. And Harris adds a third, perhaps most important, function: “We’ve been working on important projects to educate students before they get to college about what free speech is and what purpose it serves in our republic. So education is our prevention wing, in addition to defense — our treatment wing.”

Organizations like FIRE, of course, have their limits. My friends in the aforementioned group chat shared their free opinions and were met with equally free — though certainly uncivil — rebuttals from their peers. There is no room for litigation here, nor should there be. Nevertheless, as far as conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals are concerned, foundations protecting the rights enumerated in the Constitution are highly important assets that have played — and will continue to play — a crucial role in the fight to preserve the ideals of the American Republic. To combat cancel culture and political hegemony, it is crucial to provide individuals — the building blocks of any culture we praise or fault — with the will to preserve free speech, as well as with the freedom to speak out. The consequences if this mission fails need not be enumerated.

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