The Corner

Free Speech and Its Campus Enemies

Free speech has come under such furious attack on American college campuses that this fundamental concept of civilization now belongs on the endangered-species list. Many students are opposed to free speech since they feel entitled to silence or even punish anyone who disagrees with them, or merely annoys them (that’s the point behind the furor over “microaggressions”). Also, some students, and even faculty members, buy into the notion that some ideas have been heard too much (e.g., arguments for private property and economic liberty) while others have supposedly been heard too little (e.g., the case for socialism), so out of “fairness” the dominant ideas should be suppressed.

The “speech must be properly controlled” faction has been winning, but at last a counter-offensive seems to be building. One group that has come to the defense of free speech is PEN America, which released a paper last month that is meant to advance understanding of the principles of free speech on campus. In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, I give PEN America’s effort two thumbs up.

But the problem with it (and all such free-speech defenses) is that so many academic officials these days are inclined to say, “Sure, free speech is vital, but . . . ” But it must not make anyone feel excluded; but it must not trigger any harmful emotions; but it must not harass anyone, and so on. With so many voices on campus clamoring for restrictions on speech, the exceptions are swallowing up the rule.

Consider, for instance, the nasty incidents at Yale last year, where the university’s president, Peter Salovey, did nothing to defend two members of the Yale community, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, when they were viciously hounded by “progressive” students over the silly matter of appropriate Halloween costumes. (My piece links to a devastating article on that by one of Yale Law’s most famous graduates, Richard Epstein.)

For Salovey, free speech is important, but far more important to mollify irate students so they wouldn’t turn their anger on him.

Our higher-education system has been fully infiltrated by administrators like Salovey who think they must balance freedom of speech with bogus concerns such as “diversity” and “inclusivity.” With such people in power, free speech will keep eroding.

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

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