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Censorship is a Bipartisan Issue

By January 9, 2017

In today’s New York Times opinion pages, University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Donald Moynihan asks “Who’s Really Placing Limits on Free Speech?”, arguing that beyond the most elite private universities, conservative state legislators pose a far greater threat to free speech and open debate on campus than does “political correctness.”

Professor Moynihan makes some important points with which I agree. Ideologically-based funding threats from state legislatures are a serious matter indeed, and FIRE has criticized them and will continue to criticize them as they arise. But Moynihan’s editorial, by continuing to frame the free speech debate in terms of liberal vs. conservative, misses an important opportunity to make the broader point that censorship is a wholly bipartisan issue that we must come together to fight across ideological lines. Moreover, by framing the issue in terms of the relative power of student protestors versus that of state legislators, Moynihan also evinces a misunderstanding of the dynamic on many college campuses, where student demands for censorship are backed up by administrative action that directly affects free speech and academic freedom.

Moynihan is spot on when he calls out the hypocrisy of state legislators who on the one hand lambaste universities for giving in to “speech/thought police,” and on the other hand threaten budget cuts over “offensive” reading assignments. And he is absolutely correct about the ways in which government pressure can negatively affect the climate at colleges and universities—just look at the erosion of due process rights that has occurred due to intense federal pressure on universities to more aggressively address sexual misconduct on campus.

But in calling out aggressive state legislators as the primary threat to free speech on campus, Moynihan also misjudges the campus climate in several critical ways. First of all, while he acknowledges that the “politically correct” threats to free speech are also problematic, he argues that they are “the most pressing concerns only for elite private institutions like Oberlin and Yale.” Unfortunately, as someone who has been tracking threats to free speech on campus for more than 11 years, I can say this is not the case. Indeed, Moynihan’s own state of Wisconsin provides several notable examples, including:

Moynihan is also correct that student demands for things like safe spaces and trigger warnings—and even student demands for censorship—do not themselves violate anyone’s right to free speech. Indeed, these are valid exercises of students’ right to free speech. Moynihan writes:

Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate. One group has much more power than the other.

However, Moynihan’s observation misses the reality that too often—whether due to ideological agreement or to the increasingly corporate, buyer-seller relationship between students and universities—student demands for censorship and punishment are backed up by administrative action.

For example, when a few students complained about the language that former Louisiana State University (LSU) professor Teresa Buchanan used in the classroom, the university’s Board of Supervisors fired her. (She is now suing LSU as part of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project).

Similarly, in April 2011, University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert was investigated for sexual harassment after two students anonymously submitted complaints stemming from statements he made while teaching his course “The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War.” Professor Gilbert was suspended pending a university investigation, and ultimately ordered to attend sensitivity training.

Moynihan is absolutely correct to draw attention to state legislators who have complained about the threats to the free speech rights of conservative students and faculty, but who are more than happy to threaten to withhold funds from state universities over the viewpoint of courses they don’t like. But if people from across the political spectrum who support free speech do not acknowledge that this is everyone’s problem, and that “their side” is just as capable of censorship as “the other side,” progress will be impossible. Instead, let’s all focus on calling out threats to free speech and academic freedom whenever and wherever they arise.