Hentoff: College professors censor free speech

September 27, 2012

Most of the purported news we get about our nation’s higher education is about the ponderous tuition debt that accompanies many college graduates. But Americans are entitled to know how many of our colleges and university administrators are censoring and punishing the free expressions of students and, yes, professors — whether they are liberals, conservatives or independents.

When I was going to college in the 1940s and 1950s at Northeastern University and Harvard, students vividly debated one another and their professors on controversial issues. So I would have never guessed an extensive study pertaining to free speech on college campuses, titled “Engaging Diverse Viewpoints” and conducted by the respected Association of American Colleges and Universities, would be necessary in the land of the free.

In the 2010 study, the sampled 24,000 college students were asked whether they thought it was “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”

Keep in mind they weren’t asked about expressing unpopular views — just holding them.

Here are the results: “Among the college seniors in the survey sample, only 30.3 percent answered that they strongly agreed that ‘it is safe to hold unpopular views on campus.’ ”

This information is from “Unlearning Liberty,” a book by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the only full—time organization exposing and diligently combatting the transformation of future leading Americans into passive pawns of authoritarian governments.

Lukianoff continues with the results of AAC&U’s fearful survey: “Even more alarmingly, the study showed that students’ sense of the safety of expressing unpopular views steadily declines from freshman year (starting at 40.3 percent) to senior year … But the students were downright optimistic compared to the 9,000 ‘campus professionals’ surveyed, including faculty, student affairs personnel, and academic administrators. Only 18.8 percent strongly agreed it was safe to have unpopular views on campus.

“Faculty members, who are often the longest—serving members of the college community and presumably know it best,” adds Lukianoff, “scored the lowest of any group — a miserable 16.7 percent!”

In cases involving public universities and colleges, they are required by the First Amendment to protect freedom of speech and the academic freedom of students and professors. But how come some of FIRE’s insistent interventions have been at private universities, where blocking free speech is not a matter of state action?

In a recent column for the website RealClear Religion, Lukianoff writes FIRE gets involved because “most private colleges — like Yale and Harvard — promise free speech and other basic rights in glowing language” (“Not at Liberty to Discuss,” www.realclearreligion.org, Sept. 14).

The promise made to students and faculty is, Lukianoff explains, “binding legal precedent in most states, where courts have held that colleges may be required to honor the contractual promises they make.”

Students accepted at private colleges and universities — and their parents — should be mindful of this contractual obligation

If my children, now mostly in their 50s, were young enough to be applying to colleges, I’d be much troubled by what Lukianoff recently told me: “It’s easy for students to get caught up in the frenzy of trying to get into the best—ranked schools. But if the college you attend doesn’t respect free speech, your education will suffer, regardless of how high the college is ranked.”

And your country will suffer, too.

Let’s continue to strengthen and deepen the growing number of teachers who are arousing their students in lively civics classes, engaging them in debates as they learn how to become authentically involved citizens — before they even arrive on college campuses.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.