The Corner

Education

On the Need to Protect Free Speech on Campus

While leftists often dismiss the claim that there’s a freedom-of-speech problem on our campuses (you know — those kids who shout down speakers they don’t like are merely using their own free-speech rights), any objective observer sees that free speech is embattled.

One such observer is University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs, author of an excellent 2004 book Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. Free speech was in trouble 15 years ago and is more so today.

In today’s Martin Center article, Downs argues that there’s no question that free speech needs protection, but wonders if a presidential order like Trump’s recent one is the best approach.

As evidence of the problem, Downs points to the case of Professor Samuel Abrams, who has been facing a mob of students and fellow faculty members at Sarah Lawrence College just because he wrote an article noting that campus administrators tend to be even more leftist than the faculty. For Abrams’s offense, the mob demands a host of rules that would chill freedom of speech.

The problem with Trump’s executive order, Downs maintains, is that it gives such broad powers to federal officials that it could be used to further stifle free speech. He writes:

First Amendment jurisprudence and principles of academic freedom have always allowed for limited, principled restrictions to free speech—e.g., intellectual competence and relevance to the subject at hand can limit what is said in class, and members of the university community must be allowed to decide whom to invite as speakers. But heavy-handed government intervention could intrude upon such judgments, especially if overly zealous students deploy federal power to back their claims.

If higher education officials want to avoid more federal oversight, they should concentrate on getting its own house in order Downs says.  That is, campus leaders should recognize the importance of free speech and strongly protect it against the kind of authoritarianism we see at Sarah Lawrence and many other schools.

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

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