Politics & Policy

Free Speech Is under Threat on College Campuses. Here’s How to Fight Back

A student walks across the campus of Columbia University in New York, October 5, 2009. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Conservatives can, and should, form alliances with liberals committed to free speech to keep it alive.

Last week, I helped launch the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), a nonprofit organization comprising college and university faculty members from across the ideological spectrum who are committed to defending each other’s free speech. I am a right-of-center libertarian in my own political views. Many of us on the right are familiar with the rising threat to conservative speech on campuses. Although conservative faculty are a minority on college campuses, theirs is not the only speech under threat in our current political environment. A good-faith review of the steady stream of speech controversies emerging from American university campuses makes evident that suppression of controversial ideas runs rampant on all sides.

Liberal and moderate academics are deeply affected by the erosion of tolerance for dissent on our college campuses. Many of them decline to speak out on controversial subjects precisely because of the fierce intimidation that they face from their own side — and, to be frank, that they all too often face from politicians and activists on the political right. This creates an illusion of ideological conformity. Jonathan Zimmerman of the University of Pennsylvania, a self-described liberal Democrat and a founding member of the AFA, recently described the problem in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune:

If you’re affiliated with a college or university and it initiates a set of diversity trainings, you probably won’t bring up research suggesting that these trainings either have a negligible impact on racial attitudes or make them worse. People might conclude that you don’t support diversity, period. That’s just too big a risk to take, especially if you don’t have tenure.

Or if your university releases a statement condemning acts of police violence, you won’t ask out loud why it didn’t also denounce the rioting that followed some of them. For the record, Biden has condemned both. But if you repeat what he said, dear professor, you might be reviled as a racist by the same colleagues who are celebrating Biden’s projected victory.

For conservatives to win more support from liberal academics on free-speech issues, we must be willing to defend the rights of liberal academics to voice their own dissenting views. As a purely strategic matter, conservatives can build more support for the protection of their own speech rights by making common cause with liberal academics who wish to have their speech rights defended. Free critical inquiry and robust intellectual debate are at the very heart of what universities do, and we should recognize that conservatives and liberals alike have an interest in these universal principles. More broadly, the ability to have conversations across the ideological divide and to tolerate those with whom we differ is essential to living together in a liberal democracy. Universities should be models for how we build healthy communities despite our differences.

Another prominent left-leaning AFA member, Jeannie Suk Gersen of Harvard Law School, has written powerfully about free speech in the New Yorker. In March 2019, she defended her colleague, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., an undergraduate dean at Harvard who was demonized and had his home vandalized after he agreed to serve as defense counsel for Harvey Weinstein. Gersen explained why this is a troubling sign of the times:

The core of due process is having a fair chance to be heard. This is something I tell my students, in some way or another, almost every day. That same principle, of hearing people out, is the basis of any free society. In all my roles, of teacher, lawyer, and writer, I’ve never been more conscious of the principle’s wider implications. A chill has descended on our intellectual lives—on the positions we feel free to question and express.

It’s worth noting that Gersen’s defense wasn’t enough. In May 2019, Harvard announced that it would not renew the appointments of Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans. Sullivan, who is now also a member of the AFA, has come away from his experience with an even more emphatic commitment to free inquiry. As he wrote for the New York Times:

I am profoundly troubled by the reaction of university administrators who are in charge of student growth and development. The job of a teacher is to help students think through what constitutes a reasonable argument. It is a dereliction of duty for administrators to allow themselves to be bullied into unprincipled positions.

Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.

I am proud to be allied today with Sullivan, Gersen, Zimmerman, and many other liberal academics in the AFA. All of the organization’s members commit to defending speech rights regardless of whether we agree with the speech under attack. Mutual defense is the only reliable foundation for free speech in academia, media, or any other arena. If we are only prepared to defend the speech rights of those with whom we agree, then we are hardly committed to free speech at all, and we do a disservice to the liberal values that underlie American constitutionalism. The pursuit of truth is impossible unless all views may be presented, defended, and debated. This is why the AFA’s mission statement declares, “A threat to academic freedom anywhere is a threat to academic freedom everywhere.”

The AFA’s cross-ideological nature emphasizes the duty of both the Left and the Right to stand up for each other. It has become too easy to retreat into the familiar comfort of our ideological tribes and to stand in defense only of those with whom we most strongly agree. Neither universities nor a free society can survive like that. Despite our disagreements, we still share common ground. A commitment to free speech should be part of that common ground. Just as I on the right would hope to be defended by my colleagues on the left were my speech under fire, I must also be ready to defend my liberal colleagues — even when, or especially when, their rights are called into question by those considered to be “on my side.” The members of the AFA have banded together in the common cause of supporting professors in their traditional mission of exploring difficult ideas and attempting to advance our understanding of the world, society, and humanity. We also hope to resist efforts to suppress those endeavors, whether the forces of censorship come from the left or the right.

No professor can be certain that he won’t be next on cancel culture’s chopping block. In fact, many progressives find it particularly difficult to teach classes on the subjects typically seen as liberal, such as gender, sexuality, or police brutality. The landmines are simply too plentiful. The risk of offending the sensibilities of students, alumni, or politicians is simply too great.

Many of my liberal colleagues in academia believe themselves to be in even greater danger of being silenced than conservatives. Whether they are right or wrong on the relative threat isn’t the point. The point is that the sense of fear in modern academia is pervasive and the threats to free speech are widespread.

Many liberals and progressives are natural and eager allies for conservatives on free speech, and I am determined to continue finding such allies. We need their help, and they need ours. The AFA provides the space for this alliance to develop in the sphere of academia. We should be building such alliances on behalf of liberal values wherever we can.

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