Threats to Free Speech on Campus

March 8, 2015

By Jonathan Marks at National Review

A Response to George Leef

Over at Minding the Campus, I directed attention to a debate at George Washington University on the resolution “Are Liberals Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus?” Spoiler alert: the affirmative won handily. In the piece, I discuss developments on the left that have helped foster intolerance on campus.

But, as George Leef notes in the comment section, I acknowledge the strength of the argument that out-of-control administrators sometimes censor speech for reasons unrelated to left-wing political correctness. George asks: “When do those administrators ever try to silence leftist speech and activism?”

In fairness—I always strive for fairness to me—I quoted one of the debate’s participants, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who said that “if you’re going to be censored on the modern college campus for your opinion, chances are you’re going to be censored by the Left.” I also noted that administrators are themselves left leaning and consequently more sensitive to offenses against their own.

But in his superb book Unlearning Liberty, Lukianoff does offer examples of other kinds of suppression. In 2009, “three professors at Southwestern College . . . were placed on immediate administrative leave just hours after they took their protest over budget cuts outside the college’s absurdly small ‘free speech patio.’” In 2005, “an administrator at Seminole Community College . . . forbade a student . . . from distributing literature about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on campus.” The administrator simply did not like PETA. In 2006 and again in 2007, Hampton University refused to recognize “what would have been the only gay and lesbian organization on campus,” hiding behind, in the case of at least one administrator, the preposterous excuse that there was a “moratorium on new student groups,” even though eleven new groups had been approved that very year. Hampton had previously distinguished itself by nearly expelling seven students for handing out anti-Bush flyers.

All this is not to suggest an equivalence. It is instead to make the point that academic liberalism of the old sort practiced by Lukianoff, the sort that insists that free inquiry is what the modern university should be about, has no natural constituency. For that reason, although the threat to free speech and thought in our universities comes mainly from the left, which holds most of the power there, other threats should not be discounted.

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