The Corner

Education

Freedom of Speech Is Taking a Beating

A man, who declined to be identified, holds a sign as conservative demonstrators rally on Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, California, September 27, 2017. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Several excellent books have recently been published on the erosion of free speech on college campuses and in today’s Martin Center article, I discuss one of them: Professor Keith Whittington’s Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Whittington shrewdly opens with a story that seems like it was lifted from a campus event from this spring. Students rioted to force the administration to fire a professor they intensely disliked. They claimed that they only wanted faculty who said things they approved of. Some of the professor’s colleagues stood up for him, but many others decided that they preferred a quiet university without him.

But that wasn’t an American university this year. It was the University of Breslau in 1933. The students were Hitler devotees who objected to the hiring of a Jew to teach law. The parallels between then and now are striking.

Whittington covers the wide array of threats we now find to free speech on our campuses — speaker shout-downs, disinvitations, demands for “safe spaces” and courses that reinforce student beliefs rather than present objective knowledge.

What about “hate speech”? It’s commonplace for “progressive” students and even administrators to repeat that the First Amendment does not protect such speech, but Whittington shows that they’re wrong. And even if that weren’t the case, he argues, we couldn’t trust campus officials to draw the line between permitted speech and non-permitted speech:

The idea that a hate speech exception would be applied strictly and stay limited flies in the face of our historical experience. When charged with the duty to suppress hateful speech, officials have repeatedly understood that duty as a mandate to suppress unpopular speech and speech they personally find offensive and unpalatable.

Whittington has written a splendid defense of free speech. I strongly recommend it.

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

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