The Corner


College Leaders Must Respond to Attacks on Free Speech

For the last couple of years, one of the two biggest topics of discussion regarding college education in the U.S. has been the widespread assault against free speech by “progressives.” (The other is the rising level of student debt and the inability of many students to pay off their obligations.) Speakers who don’t toe the leftist party line are shouted down and students who don’t are apt to be accused of “hate speech” and hauled before a “bias response team.” Debate, say many leftists, should be curtailed in the interests of “fairness” and “sensitivity.”

One observer of all this is University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs. In 2005, he wrote a book entitled Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus and in today’s Martin Center article, he looks at the free-speech problem a dozen years later. During that span of time, he says, matters have gotten much worse. “Today’s suppression,” Downs writes, “differs from the previous era in three key respects: it is more passionate and aggressive; it is more student-initiated and driven; and it extends the reach of censorship more deeply into everyday campus life and the life of the mind.”

Indeed so. The Social Justice Warrior types have kept pushing to see how much they could get away with and pliable administrators have rarely rebuked (much less punished) them.

Downs calls for sanctions with teeth to deal with students who think they are entitled to disrupt the speech of others. “Disruptions of speakers strike at the very heart of the idea of an open university. Suspension from the school — the second strongest campus-based penalties — is not out of line given the problem today. And in cases of repeated offense, outright expulsion would be merited,” he writes. As for outside agitators like the masked thugs the Left seems to have at its disposal at schools as disparate as Middlebury and Berkeley, Downs says they should be prosecuted.

The problem is that those same jellyfish administrators who have allowed this problem to grow are not likely to do much beyond talking about free speech, hedged with qualifications that will appease the vociferous leftist factions they have to deal with.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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