The Corner

Education

Free Speech Is Embattled on Campus

University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs first came to my attention with a book he wrote nearly 15 years ago entitled Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. In the years since, Downs has retired and the free speech problem has gotten much worse.

His new book on this subject is Free Speech and Liberal Education — A Plea for Intellectual Diversity and Tolerance.  I review it for the Martin Center today.

He is justifiably worried that his plea will fall on deaf ears since there are a great many students, faculty, and administrators who really don’t think much of free speech. That’s because it gets in the way of their political goals, which come down to transforming America along collectivistic lines. They’re against allowing speech that gets in their way. Only a few brave academic leaders dare to oppose them and insist that the way to deal with arguments you oppose is with better arguments, not silencing them.

Many of our educators have forgotten (if they ever knew) why John Stuart Mill advocated free speech, namely that people are fallible and therefore need the constant corrective of rational debate over ideas. Instead, many embrace the dangerous concept advanced by Professor Herbert Marcuse that it’s good to suppress speech that defends the status quo against radical uprooting.

Downs sees a few bright spots, such as campus centers where free speech and debate flourish, such as the James Madison program at Princeton. He also recounts some instances where faculty members have faced off against the anti-free speech crowd and won.

But on the whole, the war to save free speech is not going well.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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