FIRE staff sometimes joke that we’d like to work ourselves out of a job by finally defeating college speech codes once and for all, rendering a large part of our work unnecessary. As Naomi Schaefer Riley writes in the New York Post this week, Harvey Silverglate hoped for just that when he and Alan Charles Kors co-founded FIRE 15 years ago. But FIRE is busier than ever, and recent trends are putting a worrying twist on the fight for free speech on campus.
At our founding, Silverglate had good reason to be optimistic. As FIRE details in our Guide to Free Speech on Campus, the law governing free speech on public college campuses is well-settled and incredibly protective of a wide range of expression. Schaefer Riley relays Silverglate’s thinking back in the day:
“Surely,” he thought, “these speech codes and kangaroo courts are so antithetical to the nature of institutions of higher education — rational institutions — that there was no way this culture [of suppressing speech] could possibly survive more than a decade.”
Unfortunately, even in the face of clear legal and moral obligations to protect the “marketplace of ideas” on campus, institutions of higher education have continued to maintain unconstitutional restrictions on expression and punish students and professors for protected speech.
FIRE is making measurable progress. But in some respects, the environment for unfettered debate on campus seems to be getting worse. Schaefer Riley notes the shift from administrator-led censorship attempts to student-led ones:
[T]he really worrisome part is this: The suppression of ideas that make people uncomfortable is no longer a top-down process.
Now it’s bottom up. The students are the ones registering the complaints and demanding punishment for the offenders.
Silverglate says that professors regularly tell him they are scared of saying the wrong thing about anything in class. And students who used to “roll their eyes” when they talked about the sensitivity training of freshman-orientation programs no longer do.
“Campuses have become asylums where you don’t want the patients to be aroused,” he says. “The students are being treated like psychiatric patients.”
The notion that school is a place where being made uncomfortable is unacceptable has now trickled down to the elementary and secondary level. Students matriculating to college are just expecting the same kind of constant coddling they have received for the 13 years prior.
For some recent examples of how these trends have played out, and for more thoughts from Silverglate, check out the rest of Schaefer Riley’s piece in the New York Post.