The Campus Threat to Free Speech

November 30, 2015

By Mary Reichard at World News Group

Before a University of Missouri communications professor summoned “muscle” to help shut down a student reporter at a protest, a Yale University student shouted down a professor, saying, “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”

These are just two notable, recent reminders that restrictions on free speech at places of higher learning are becoming increasingly commonplace.

At Vanderbilt University, professor Carol Swain has been ferociously targeted for her non-politically correct ideas. She’s professed her Christian faith and conservative ideas at the college for 26 years now. The attacks on her started in January when she published an opinion piece in the local newspaper criticizing radical Islam. The university sent out a campus-wide email encouraging students to get counseling or “engage in expressive action and/or dialogue” in reaction to her column.

“That generated a protest where I was denounced for my bigotry and hatred. After that protest I was harassed for several months, and there’s no way to trace who did what, but it created a very unsafe environment,” Swain said. “I never thought I would … see administrators who just totally backed away from their responsibility to lead. They’ve given over the whole institution to students in a way that, I believe, is harmful to our nation and harmful to the personal development of those students.”

Christina Hoff Sommers is a former professor who now works for the American Enterprise Institute. She has encountered similar reaction from students when she visits college campuses to speak about feminism. At Oberlin College and Georgetown University, she recently shared her view that neither campuses nor the United States have a rape culture. She cited statistics from the Bureau of Justice.

“Students protested my visit on the grounds that it gave them PTSD. They didn’t literally say PTSD, but they implied that it would be ‘triggering,’ which means traumatizing. And, in fact, they set up safe rooms where people could go if they were panicked by my words,” Sommers said. She echoed Swain’s belief that university officials are letting misguided students take the lead.

Sommers noted college students aren’t aware of their basic rights because U.S. institutions don’t teach history or prepare the next generation for citizenship. American college students don’t seem to realize they live in a free country, she said.

“Someone once described the American campus as an island of intolerance in a sea of freedom, and I think that’s very apt,” Sommers concluded.

But at least one university is working to liberate the islands of intolerance. Recently, the University of Chicago put together what’s called the “Chicago Statement,” emphasizing “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community.” It quotes one of the university’s presidents as saying “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” Civility and mutual respect in conversation is mentioned, but the Chicago Statement specifically says those should not be used as an excuse to close off discussion or to shut down others whose views we loathe.

Bernie Reeves at National Review called the statement “too little, too late,” meaning two generations of radical scholars have infected higher education with the politically correct disease of protected speech. He thinks it’s so entrenched now that it’s impossible to cure. But Robert Shibley with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the Chicago Statement, which his organization helped write, strikes the right tone.

“It’s not a new idea, but in many ways it’s still a radical idea—the idea that we’re going to fight speech with more speech rather than government force, or even worse, vigilante force,” Shibley said. “When you have ideas, you need to contest those ideas in a marketplace, in a free marketplace of ideas, rather than appealing to the authorities to try to get the ideas you don’t like silenced.”

At the University of Missouri, where the professor was caught on camera bullying a photographer, the student journalist stood up to the mob mentality. Because of the adverse publicity, the student protesters issued a statement saying they wouldn’t block freedom of the press anymore. Shibley said he wished universities would learn as quickly as the Missouri students did.

Schools: Vanderbilt University University of Missouri – Columbia Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech