The Corner

Education

Should the Feds Try to Save Free Speech on Campus?

The federal government has accumulated such far-reaching powers that it’s tempting to want to employ them to solve problems that those of us on the right see, now that the government is (temporarily and to some unknown degree) under our control. Here’s an example — the relentless assault on free speech on college campuses. Why not use the government’s power over higher education (constitutionally unwarranted though it is) to crack down on schools that fail to uphold First Amendment values?

A writer I greatly respect, Harvey Silverglate (the co-founder of FIRE), recently made a case for doing that in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. And a few days later, another writer I respect, Preston Cooper of AEI, wrote a cautionary essay, reminding us that using government power, even for presumptively good ends, can backfire. In this Martin Center article, I consider both of their positions.

This is a close call, but I come down on Silverglate’s side. That’s because the Department of Education is already an out-of-control monstrosity staffed mainly with arrogant apparatchiks (sadly, Betsy DeVos isn’t able to broom the place out and start fresh) who have and will continue to do whatever they want. So we might as well try to scare colleges with the possible loss of federal money if they ignore attacks on free speech. Middlebury College, for instance, just “punished” the rioters there with nothing more than reprimand letters in their student files. As John Leo writes about that, “It’s not real punishment and (the letter) won’t be seen by anyone unless if falls out of the folder and a janitor spots it.”

No more student-aid money for Middlebury? Boo hoo. Our ultimate aim should be to do away with the Department of Education and get the feds out of the business of financing higher ed.

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

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