Has the college-speaker-disinvitation craze ended? Some would have you believe so. The Niskanen Center proclaimed that “the campus free speech crisis” ended in 2018. In 2019, Commentary magazine optimistically argued that things were “looking up on campus.” The numbers seem to support this view. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), university disinvitations peaked in 2016 and have slowly declined since. However, my experience at Princeton University has taught me that the attack on free speech is hardly over. Conservative voices are still being stifled on campus, only now through more-cunning methods.
As president of the right-leaning party of Princeton University’s American Whig-Cliosophic Society, the oldest collegiate literary, political, and debate society in the nation, I am responsible for bringing conservative speakers and voices to the heart of Princeton’s political scene. In 2020, I tried to do my job, only to be shut down by an intolerant Left.
Several months ago, I submitted a list of potential speakers to the American Whig-Cliosophic Society’s Speakers Council. They flagged a number of my speakers as controversial and decided to put them to a vote before the group’s student Governing Council, in accordance with procedures laid out to prevent a repeat of a 2018 disinvitation incident. My “provocative” speakers included Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner (and Princeton alumnus) George Will and Neomi Rao, a former law professor and currently a circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Predictably, none of the left-leaning party’s choices, including extreme progressives such as bell hooks and provocateurs such as Jamelle Bouie, were deemed controversial enough for further review.
Unfortunately, the speakers’ fates seemed sealed before we even began consideration. Some on the Speakers Council deemed George Will too controversial for campus, on the basis of his writing on “marginalized groups,” particularly his accused insensitivity for victims of sexual assault. The Governing Council feared his heterodox views would trigger discomfort and lead to protests. Not even his 2019 baccalaureate address at Princeton — at the university president’s invitation — and his former position on the university’s Board of Trustees could turn the tables in his favor. According to this group of Princeton’s political elite, Princeton students could not handle Will’s arguments. And so I was not allowed to invite Will to campus.
A similar debate ensued about Judge Neomi Rao. Rao’s college writing on sexual assault and race apparently disqualified her from lecturing on constitutional theory. In recent years, Rao has distanced herself from her past controversial writing, as seen in her public apology during a Senate confirmation hearing. But for these righteous progressives, sins can never be forgiven. Seated around a mahogany table, these future leaders voted to prohibit an invitation to Judge Rao. Her influence is heard and felt across America — but not by these Ivy League students.
While my renowned speakers were not disinvited, their prospective invitations were blocked. Contrary to recent reports, free speech has not won at the university. A near majority of college students believe that the First Amendment should not protect so-called hate speech, and a majority support disinvitations. Open debate is only rarely found on most campuses.
Free-speech-advocacy groups must recognize that disinvitations are no longer the standard for quashing debate and curbing conservative views. Campus activists have become wily. By holding back invitations absolutely, they can quietly keep students in their echo chambers. Today, right-leaning speakers are shut down before they can even open their mouths.
A disproportionate share of university events and commencement speakers around the country are progressive. Some universities have reported as high as a 32:1 ratio of left-leaning to right-leaning speakers. Nationwide, just 3 percent of commencement speakers in 2018 were considered conservative. These numbers show that my experience is a broad problem: Conservatives are being prohibited from extending and receiving invitations. Conservatives have in effect been exorcised from academic settings.
This attitude belies the purpose of universities as truth-seeking institutions. College is a time to entertain the most-persuasive arguments of all sides. Students ought to welcome reasoned arguments from across the political spectrum and to reexamine their most cherished beliefs. College ought to be a place of thought, not of comfortable indoctrination. The debate over free speech on campus concerns the central value of a university.
Two groups will need to speak up to reclaim the university: courageous students unafraid to disagree and to feel uncomfortable, and both professors and administrators committed to an educational vision supporting free inquiry. There have been a few promising examples, including the Princeton Open Campus Coalition and Professor Joshua Katz on my own campus and President Robert Zimmer at the University of Chicago. But students, professors, and administrators have yet to stand up in significant numbers.
The American Whig-Cliosophic Society was founded by James Madison, author of the First Amendment and a free-speech warrior. It would be wise for Princeton students to reacquaint themselves with Madison’s thought — that is, if he were even allowed to speak on campus in 2021.