The Death of Campus Free Speech -- and How to Revive It

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It’s getting harder to tell the difference between real news about colleges and the Onion’s parodies. Take an incident at the University of Northern Colorado. A couple of professors, eager to promote discussion in class, asked their students to read a popular magazine article, written by two free-speech advocates. “The Coddling of the American Mind” delivers its punch line in the subtitle: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”

After reading the article, the teachers said, please come up with your own list of “difficult topics” worth discussing. As examples, they mentioned gay marriage, abortion, climate change, and transgender issues. They expressed no opinion. They simply gave the class a straightforward, intelligent assignment.

You can guess what happened next.

Just mentioning “difficult topics” and assigning a reading about free speech triggered one student’s meltdown. Her complaint: transgender is not a “difficult topic.” It’s beyond debate because she views herself that way. To even discuss it would violate her safety.

“Safety,” as it happens, is a magic word on campus. It has its own special meaning, well beyond legitimate concerns about robbery, sexual assaults, and coercive threats. Some students have stretched the term to mean “I feel unsafe because I disagree with your ideas. So shut up. Right now.”

In this Bizarro World, you can feel unsafe if someone says fracking is a good idea, or that the Constitution protects gun purchases, or offer the opinion that employers should not have to provide free birth control. Crying “unsafe” is the campus equivalent of pulling the fire alarm—but with no sense of what a fire really is and no penalty for false alarms.

Okay, you say, it’s a free country and anybody can voice a complaint, justified or not. Surely, university administrators who receive silly complaints will gently explain that classrooms are supposed to challenge students, supposed to elicit spirited, informed debate, and occasionally prompt students to rethink their views and offer better reasons for them.

If you need to see a psychological counselor, we have them available. If you face any real dangers, tell us immediately, and we will help. Otherwise, do the assignment, develop your own views, buttress them with logic and evidence, and prepare to deal with alternative perspectives.

Oh, you naïve denizen of Earth.

Few administrators would even consider saying that. Today, dean-of-students offices are devoted to comforting delicate snowflakes and soothing their feelings. If that means stamping out others’ speech, too bad.

The deans are typically helped by small bureaucracies with Orwellian titles such as “the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.” The title is deceptive; these offices are ideologically driven. They are not about “including” Chinese-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Jews who support Israel, or evangelical Christians who may feel themselves beleaguered minorities on campus. The diversity police have zero interest in encouraging diverse viewpoints. Instead, they are university-sponsored advocates for approved minorities, approved viewpoints, and approved grievances. Full stop.

The rot has even spread to schools such as the University of Chicago, which has exemplary principles of free speech. Where Chicago slips—where many schools slip—is translating its worthy principles into practice. This year, for example, Palestinian activists disrupted two pro-Israel events on campus, with no consequences.

That’s standard fare across the country. An administrator, charged with protecting students, actually stopped both events after order had been restored. She simply announced the events were over, even though the student sponsors wanted them to continue. Instead of protecting free speech, she squashed it.

She was not alone. A couple of years ago, her colleagues twice admonished students for advertising ordinary debate topics, one on affirmative action, another on illegal immigration. A student had complained that black students were harmed by even discussing affirmative action. Another said Hispanics were injured simply by seeing the phrase “illegal immigration.”

University administrators duly summoned the debate leaders for “sensitivity discussions.” Remember, this is a debate society, these are prominent public issues, and this is a university, a place where ideas should be contested. No matter. After I complained to senior administrators, they actually defended the sensitivity grilling.

Just for fun, imagine a conservative student complaining about a debate titled “Resolved: We should encourage more undocumented immigration.” Is it remotely possible that administrators would summon the debate sponsors and tell them to be more sensitive to students who think illegal immigration is, well, illegal?

Not a chance. Some administrators told me so directly. That means the whole process is not only ludicrous, it is deeply biased against some viewpoints. That’s what “inclusion and diversity” means in practice, not just at Chicago or Northern Colorado but at universities across the country.

What should the administrators have done? They should have told the complaining student, “I’m sorry you are upset, but alternative views, sometimes disturbing ones, are central to your education and a liberal society. We are absolutely committed to protecting you from physical dangers and imminent threats, but not from ideas you don’t like. Here’s the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s not long. Take 20 seconds and read it. Then, go to the library, read the assigned materials, formulate your arguments, and engage with other students. Who knows? You might learn something.”

That didn’t happen at Northern Colorado. Instead, the complaint went straight to the university’s “Bias Response Team,” and they snapped into action. The teachers, who had done absolutely nothing wrong, were told not to discuss transgender issues again and to avoid stating anyone’s opinions about them, lest it trouble the complaining student.

This was just one of 44 incidents their Bias Response Team handled last year. It is unclear if they want to purchase land in rural China for a much-needed Re-Education Through Labor Camp.

This assault on free discussion is now commonplace on campus. What can be done?

Five Steps to Protect Campus Speech

First, university presidents and top administrators must show some intellectual courage. Their boards of trustees should demand to know if free speech is protected on their campuses, in principle and in practice. Then, they should hold the school administrators accountable for results.

Second, universities should tell students, beginning with their acceptance letters, that “our school believes in free speech, open debate, and diverse opinions. You will hear different views on controversial topics. You are urged to read, write, and develop your own views, but you may not suppress others.” Stress that core value during orientation week. Urge students who seek shelter from intellectual challenges to go somewhere else.

Third, assign one ranking administrator primary responsibility for ensuring free and open debate on campus. This administrator should have no other responsibilities for student affairs since, experience shows, those other student responsibilities undermine the focus on free speech. He or she should make regular reports to the university president, faculty, and board, just as others do about gender discrimination, physical safety, and other issues.

Fourth, demand that student affairs offices stop suppressing basic academic freedoms and start supporting them. Begin by restoring the rightful meaning of “student safety.” It shouldn’t be distorted to shield students from uncomfortable ideas. In the 1950s, that would have prevented students at Ole Miss from urging racial integration, or even hearing about it in class. Somebody would have been offended.

Finally, let students know that they have every right to protest peacefully. They have every right to hold their own events, opposing what others’ advocate. But they have no right to disrupt others, and they will be punished if they do. Stop coddling rabble-rousers who come to campus specifically to disrupt academic events, as they often do. Universities routinely ignore these problems, despite their corrosive effects.

Unless universities address these issues, firmly and promptly, they will fail in their basic mission of promoting the exchange of ideas, real learning, and innovative research. That mission requires vigorous, unfettered debates and diverse viewpoints. Right now, it is being smothered in an avalanche of delicate snowflakes.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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