An Important New Book

By June 1, 2005

University of Wisconsin professor (and FIRE friend) Donald Alexander Downs has written a new book entitled Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. I have not yet had an opportunity to pick up the book (though I’ll order from Amazon.com today), but from Peter Berkowitz’s review, it appears to be a must-read. I found one of the paragraphs of the review particularly interesting because it concisely answers one of the most common questions at FIRE: “How did this happen? How did universities become so repressive?”

What forces have driven universities to clamp down on the free play of ideas and to collaborate in the vilification of moral and political opinions that depart from campus orthodoxies? One factor involves a transformation in the idea of the university. The last 25 years have witnessed the return of what Downs calls the “proprietary university,” which sees its central mission not as the transmission of knowledge and the pursuit of truth but rather as the inculcation of a specific—in this case ostensibly progressive—moral and political agenda. Another involves a transformation in the progressive sensibility itself. As late as the mid-1960s, the dominant opinion on the left was that free speech and due process were essential to the creation of a more inclusive and just society. But belief in the progressive character of liberal principles has been under intense attack by influential scholars since the glory days of Martin Luther King Jr. Radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon argue that the oppression of women is itself a product of liberal commitments to fair process (notwithstanding that never in history have women enjoyed the freedom and equality achieved in contemporary liberal democracies). Critical legal theorists maintain the same about the oppression of the poor, and critical race theorists press the claim concerning the oppression of minorities (notwithstanding the reduction in the number and poverty of the poor and the unprecedented inclusion of minorities in public life in liberal democracies). At the same time, many campus theorists drew inspiration from Algerian social critic Frantz Fanon, whose The Wretched of the Earth argued that sympathy with those who suffer is a higher priority than respect for individual rights (even though respect for individual rights has proven over time the most successful means for alleviating suffering). Meanwhile, postmodern critics, believing themselves to be following Nietzsche, argued that individual rights were fictions invented by the strong to control the weak (never mind that Nietzsche decried modern liberalism as an invention of the weak to tyrannize the strong). Taken together, these opinions encouraged the idea of “progressive censorship,” the policing of speech to ensure that it conformed to standards deemed necessary to lift up and liberate the oppressed.

Ignoring the editorial asides (FIRE does not have a position on, for example, the relative political and economic status of women and minorities in the United States), Berkowitz makes an important point: in recent years, a collection of legal, political, and social theorists has argued that free speech is itself repressive. Consequently, speech must be shaped and regulated so that it advances only the correct viewpoints and suppresses those viewpoints (subjectively) considered to be dangerous, intolerant, and hateful. There is one question, however, that I have never seen these theorists answer sufficiently. If our democracy has (allegedly) created persistent social and political inequality and (allegedly) fosters racism, sexism, heterosexism and every other “ism” condemned by the academic establishment, how does limiting the First Amendment advance the cause of minorities and the historically disadvantaged? Remember, the First Amendment limits the power of the majority. The First Amendment protects minority viewpoints—since majoritarian views are protected by the democratic process itself.  At Harvard Law School, I saw many of these “progressive censors” up close. It is my belief that “progressive censorship” was less a principle than an expedient rationalization—a justification for grabbing and holding power in the small feudal state that is the modern university. In the larger culture, many of these same individuals declare their undying love for the First Amendment. Why? Because it is the only thing that allows them to maintain their public voice—and keep their job. (Just ask Ward Churchill).