The Corner


What Betsy DeVos Gets Right about Free Speech on Campus

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education Committee on “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Education” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Earlier today, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered an insightful address on free speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. You can watch the whole thing here. It’s well worth your time:

I’ve given more than my share of speeches on free speech on campus (and I’ve litigated more than my share of free-speech cases), and the easy thing to do is to simply overwhelm the audience with horror stories. You can cite case after case, and paint a vivid picture of a broken campus culture, where censors and shame campaigns constantly and consistently squelch open, thoughtful debate.

There’s value in exposing and condemning bad acts, of course (and DeVos opens her speech with a number of examples of censorship), but frankly that’s been done to death. Those who follow campus controversies know that we have a challenge. The deeper and more interesting question is why. And, no, you can’t simply blame radical professors and administrators. Increasingly, students are coming to school primed to believe that hostile speech is hate speech. They come primed to believe that their emotional “safety” takes precedence over even the education process itself. And they come to campus completely ignorant of America’s civic traditions.

These paragraphs, from DeVos, are key:

And all too often, students do not learn about our Constitution and our freedoms in the first place. I think of a survey conducted some years ago by Philadelphia’s own Museum of the American Revolution. It found then that 83 percent of Americans did not have a basic understanding of our Founding. In fact, more Americans knew that Michael Jackson wrote “Billie Jean” than knew who wrote the Bill of Rights — or even that those Rights are amendments to our Constitution.


According to the 2014 Nation’s Report Card, only 18 percent of eighth graders had a proficient knowledge of American history. And in previous years, high school seniors did even worse: only 13 percent were proficient or better.

There are powerful reasons for America’s Bill of Rights, yet students not only don’t know these reasons, they’re ignorant of the rights. As DeVos notes, this ignorance has consequences:

When students don’t learn civics or how to think critically, should anyone be surprised by the results of a recent Brookings Institution poll? It found that over half of students surveyed think views different from their own aren’t protected by the Constitution. Is it any wonder a growing number of students also say it’s OK to shout someone down when they disagree? And is it any wonder too many students even think that violence is acceptable if you disagree with someone?

The issue isn’t that America’s students learn nothing, it’s that the “somethings” that they learn are often antithetical to America’s constitutional values, exacerbate American polarization, and — as DeVos notes — impair even the search for truth. DeVos rightly argues that the search for truth itself necessitates openness to contrary ideas, while stubbornly clinging to concepts like “my truth” can close a person to disagreement.

DeVos says the solution to the free-speech crisis isn’t “government muscle” or “defunding” institutions. This is mostly right. There should be increased accountability for First Amendment violations. Through a number of quirks in the law, colleges and universities have far more financial incentives to keep their sidewalks repaired than to maintain a marketplace of ideas, but it’s also true that court rulings can only do so much to slow cultural change or to increase civic literacy. Litigation is a necessary band-aid. To truly heal the wound, deeper treatments are necessary.

I must confess that in the short term, I’m pessimistic. DeVos has diagnosed a disease that has raced through the system, and in the midst of negative polarization, support for civil liberties (which can and do benefit your hated opponent) takes a backseat to “winning” or “punching back twice as hard” or “making the other side live by its own rules.” And of course it would be nice if our president heard his education secretary’s speech and exhibited a similar zeal for honesty and openness to dissent, but his flaws don’t make DeVos’s words any less true.

I refer to my friend Greg Lukianoff’s book Unlearning Liberty all the time, in part because the title itself is a great description of our present predicament. DeVos sees this same reality. Good for her to examine the underlying cause.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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