Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation website.
ALEXANDRIA, VA — When it comes to “diversity,” American colleges and universities are eager to embrace differences in race, ethnic background, religion, and sexual orientation — as well they should. Only when it comes to the free expression of ideas does the interest in diversity seem to retreat. Universities used to believe in the philosophy expressed by Voltaire that even the most offensive ideas deserve a hearing. Now, if ideas are unpopular, they are unwelcome. Students at Williams College recently invited John Derbyshire, a controversial journalist who opposes immigration and has been charged with nativism, to speak. The college president, Adam Falk, disinvited him.
Earlier, in October, Falk wrote in the student newspaper that, “Whatever our own views may be, we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own.” Now, he finds that censoring speech with which he disagrees is acceptable. On the Williams College website, he now says, “We have said that we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances, but there’s a line somewhere and Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it.”
At Virginia Tech, a conservative student group, Young Americans for Freedom, hosted a standing-room-only event on immigration reform with Bay Buchanan, former Treasurer of the United States, as speaker. The event was promoted with a flyer headlined provocatively. “Alien Invasion: How Illegal Immigration Is Hurting America.” The school’s Student Budget Board voted to defund the conservative student group. The reason given: “The combination of language and imagery is offensive, insensitive and a blatant act of disrespect toward the immigrant community and the Virginia Tech community at large.” Mrs. Buchanan declared: “It is an outrageous effort on the part of these students to control speech, to determine what is said and how it’s said.” After a long battle, Virginia Tech finally restored funding to Young Americans for Freedom.
On February 25, when conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was scheduled to appear at California State University in Los Angeles to deliver a talk called “When Diversity Becomes A Problem,” the University President William Covino canceled the event. Mr. Shapiro vowed to come anyway. Mr. Covino reversed the cancellation, and Shapiro appeared. But those on campus who have contempt for free speech did their best to prevent the talk from proceeding.
Natalie Johnson, reporting for DailySignal.com wrote: “Led primarily by the school’s Black Student Union and Black Lives Matter chapter, the hundreds of demonstrators, including some professors, poured into the Student Union building to block other students from attending the event. Many in the dense crowd of protesters shoved and shouted at attendees who tried slipping through the doors. Members of the conservative Young America’s Foundation, host of the event, said they were forced to sneak groups of four or five in the back door leading directly to the theater to avoid catching the attention of protesters who hadn’t yet obstructed the last entrance.”
So-called “identity politics,” in which people are not viewed as individuals but as members of this or that racial, ethnic or sexual group, is used to eliminate the free speech of anyone whose words might cause “offense” in any way. Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania, notes that, “What universities mean by diversity and multiculturalism, above all else, is simply ‘not white,’ although ‘not male’ and ‘not heterosexual’ are not all that far behind. They speak of ‘white’ and ‘white privilege’ as a single cultural phenomenon, linking those look-alike, think-alike Finns and Sicilians, French atheists and Eastern Orthodox Slavs, North Dakotans and New Yorkers into one identity. They believe that this is a deep analysis. They now must deal with the rage and often pained (and painful) silliness of those ‘excluded’ students who believe them.”
In Kors’s view, “Morally, our campuses have denied the only authentic meaning of liberation: the freedom to individuate, by one’s own lights, free of external coercions and impositions. It is the right of all free men and women to decide for themselves the meaning and importance, or relative unimportance, of their race, ethnicity, religion, sex and sexuality. No one has the moral right to decide that for you, and to assign to you official voices, denying the individuality that lies at the heart of human dignity. …The suppression of speech, expression, opinion and satire forms a barrier to that freedom in which an education worthy of free men and women can occur: debate; disagreement; speaking about what others would deem unthinkable; the right to heterodoxy and eccentricity and passions. It denies the indispensability of freedom to learning; the dignity and strength of meeting speech that one abhors with further speech, with reason, with evidence, with cold contempt, or with moral outrage and moral witness.”
See a YouTube video of Professor Kors discussing political correctness and freedom of expression here:
Today’s college students seem not to value free speech. Perhaps part of the reason is that they have been taught so little about the history of our country and the central role the First Amendment and free speech have played in our history. Only 18 per cent of the more than 1,100 colleges and universities in the What Will They Learn? study require a course in American history or government. In the other 82 per cent of schools, students can graduate with no more knowledge of America than when they entered.
A 2012 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that less than 20 per cent of American college graduates knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 2014, a survey found that more than a quarter of college graduates didn’t know that Franklin Roosevelt was president during World War II, and one third didn’t know he was the president who spearheaded the New Deal. And all those questions were multiple choice. Particularly troubling was a 2014 survey by the Newseum Institute which revealed that almost 40 per cent of Americans said the First Amendment goes “too far.”
On our campuses it is not only those with extreme views who are prevented from speaking. In one typical case, in 2013, Robert Zoellick, an alumnus of Swarthmore College and former president of the World Bank, accepted and then turned down an invitation to speak at Swarthmore’s commencement after students objected to his support for the war in Iraq and his record at the World Bank. A recent study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members found that only 18.5 per cent of the faculty and staff strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”
Those who believe in free speech are fighting back. A statement has been prepared by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone which declares, in part, “It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable.” The responsibility of a university, it concludes, is not only to promote “fearless freedom of debate,” but also to protect it.
The University of Chicago statement was built upon its own history, including a controversial invitation by students in 1932 to William Z. Foster, then the Communist Party candidate for President. The proper response to unpopular ideas, responded then-president Robert Maynard Hutchins,”lies through discussion rather than inhibition.”
The Chicago statement has been adopted by Purdue, Princeton, American University, Johns Hopkins, Chapman, Winston-Salem State and the University of Wisconsin system, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education (FIRE), a pro-free speech group which is actively promoting it.
Prof. Kors makes the point that, “Students do not choose universities to be their parents or therapists, let alone a political police enforcing partisan whims. Higher education needs individuals for all seasons who bear witness to beliefs antithetical to the new tyrannies. …The struggle for freedom at universities is one of the defining struggles of our age. Please join brave students in that struggle. …There truly are no sidelines.”
Photo by B. W. Townsend