Loss of free inquiry on campus betrays liberal legacy

October 24, 2007

The newest big controversy about free speech on campus focuses on the case of a Hamline University graduate student in Minnesota who has been ordered to undergo psychological evaluation after expressing his political disagreements with campus diversity policies alongside a rather bone-headed reference to Virginia Tech. Although the student is a long-time gadfly who seems to revel in poking the Hamline administration with a stick, the case is important for precisely that reason. Freedom of speech is easy to support when the speech is politically correct or when dissent from political correctness is expressed with timidity and apology. It is when the opinions expressed directly disagree with the dominant ideology on campus that the commitment to real freedom of speech is put to the test.

Nonetheless, even with its Orwellian overtones of Stalinist referral to mental health treatment for the “thought crimes” of political dissent, the Hamline case does not strike to the real heart of the problem with freedom of speech—or more precisely, freedom of inquiry on college campuses today.

An example of the greater problem can be seen at a recent even at the University of California at Berkeley, where a speaker invited by the local College Republicans chapter as part of the rather laughably confrontational “Islamofascist Awareness Week” was subjected to repeated and intentional acts of disruption and threats of physical violence and intimidation by radical leftists with the specific goal of preventing expression they disagreed with. This ties in to a broader pattern of “disinviting” and other tactics of eliminating non-leftist expression from campus public squares. As the article notes, leftist events advertised alongside the non-leftist ones are not targeted for disruptions and threats.

The real issue here is not only freedom of speech, but freedom of inquiry. The purpose of a university education—and by extension the purpose of having public events on university campuses—is to provide students with a broad exposure to a range of ideas and perspectives. “Diversity” is supposed to be a core mission of the modern university because such diversity is thought to produce graduates that are more aware of the complex interplay of factors and perspectives that shape the world in the age of globalization. But if “diversity” is limited to skin colors and ethnic backgrounds, students’ exposure to “diversity” misses the all-important realm of differing ideas. They are left with courses that lean left, campus events that privilege leftist perspectives, and campus codes of speech and behavior that are often applied to remove non-leftist ideas from the mix. The result is a kind of trivial, slogan-driven leftism that is bereft of any real understanding or commitment and, more importantly, incapable of dealing with the ideological complexity of the real world. The university winds up failing in its most fundamental mission.

That the left is the focus of most criticism on this issue is not bias, but rather an unfortunate artifact of the facts on the ground on campuses today—as can be seen by reviewing the data available at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, it is overwhelmingly the political left that is implementing its particular brand of hostility to free speech by using coercion, threats, and power to censor. For all the screams from the left about censorship by the right in the post-9/11 era, it is difficult to find actual cases of such censorship. And the people who hue and cry about the evils of the United States and/or the “neocons” seem to be remarkably loud for people that are supposedly being censored. The right has its wannbe censors, to be sure, but they usually fighting in the quagmire of triviality that is popular culture rather than undermining the one set of institutions that is supposed to be the bulwark of intellectualism and free inquiry.

In the 1960s, the origins of the campus free speech movement lay within the political left. The reaction by moderates and conservatives to the left on this issue is not always arising out of ideological hostility, but rather out of disappointment and disillusionment. We had thought that this was one issue where liberalism and conservatism should and did have common cause. For myself, it is love for the liberal principle of free inquiry—a principle that too many post-modern leftists and radicals have betrayed—that motivates special condemnation towards the left.

It is time for some campus leftists and liberals to recapture their own moral and intellectual heritage.

UPDATE: In response to a user comment, I realized that campus censorship represents an additional departure from the root values of liberalism. Liberalism is founded upon the enlightenment, the belief in the power of individual human reason to discern truth. Yet, post-modern liberalism (or rather leftism) is fundamentally distrustful, in that it fears that unless intolerant ideas are suppressed by the power of the college administration or the rule of the mob, individual listeners will be unable to discern their flaws.

UPDATE: Just today, yet another incident of physical intimidation and mob action used to shut down a speaker for ideological reasons.

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Schools: Hamline University Cases: Hamline University: Student Suspended after Advocating Concealed Carry on Campus