Stop the Soft Despotism Stifling Campus Free Speech

Stop the Soft Despotism Stifling Campus Free Speech
AP Photo/Lisa Rathke
Story Stream
recent articles

Last week at Vermont’s Middlebury College, left-wing students and off-campus activists shouted down a prominent conservative speaker, injured a professor as she was trying to escort him to safety, and terrorized the speaker and professor, who huddled in their car. The episode was truly frightening.

Fortunately, violent mobs like this are still rare on college campuses. Unfortunately, speech suppression is still all too common.

The issue is not what the speaker, Charles Murray, wanted to say, or why some thought he was wrong. The issue is that Murray had been invited to campus and had every right to speak without disturbance unless he posed an imminent physical threat to others (which he did not).

It’s fine to pose tough questions to him after the talk. What’s vile and unacceptable is to stomp and shout and pull the fire alarm to prevent Murray from speaking and prevent others from hearing him. Opponents of free speech always forget that latter point: Others have a right to hear the speaker and draw their own conclusions.

The mob could have protested peacefully outside the event, showing their opposition to the speaker and his views while still respecting others’ right to free expression. That is precisely what our First Amendment guarantees. Our democracy depends on this kind of vigorous back-and-forth, and so does good education.

That’s not good enough for the haters. They—and they alone—decided that no one should hear Murray’s views. They decided that you could not decide for yourself. That’s what censorship means. Others will decide for you.

Middlebury’s administration, to its credit, stood up for free speech. Warned that serious protests were coming, they refused to cancel the talk.

Now, those same administrators must decide how to punish the disruptive protesters. The easy path is the timid one, reiterating the university’s principles and giving the ringleaders a slap on the wrist. A weak response like that will not defend the college’s academic values or deter future disruptions.

Doing that requires sterner action. Students who came into the lecture hall and actively blocked the speech should have the remainder of the year at home to contemplate what education, free discourse, and ordered liberty mean. Those who came from other cities to impede the speech should be legally prohibited from reentering the campus. If students or outsiders acted violently, they should be prosecuted.

To show that Middlebury College will not be coerced, it ought to invite another serious, controversial conservative to speak on campus, someone like Daniel Pipes or Christina Hoff Sommers, who has important things to say that students are unlikely to hear in class.  Go crazy: have two conservatives on campus this year!

After all, the “heckler’s veto” is not limited to shouting down speeches. Their veto also works when faculty and students shy away from inviting speakers with controversial views. In the 1950s, that meant speakers (and faculty) on the left. Today, it means speakers (and faculty) on the right.

College Administrators With No Backbone

Middlebury’s principled defense of free speech is all too rare.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) estimates that 93 percent of American universities have codes limiting First Amendment rights to free speech; 231 campuses have Orwellian bias-reporting systems that encourage students to report on each other, as well as on faculty and staff, if their feelings are hurt or they hear speech they don’t like.

Why such dismal statistics? There are three main reasons. One is that college administrators, especially those in student affairs offices, want tranquility, not vigorous debate. If they could spray a magical “quiescent” powder on the dorms, they would. Their professional lives would be a lot easier. Second, various federal civil-rights bureaucracies have insisted on bias reports and other politically charged procedures, with no protections for due process. Third, many college administrators think “social justice,” as they define it, is more important than free speech and competing views. That’s why they actively discourage two-sided debates on topics such as

  • higher minimum wages
  • sanctuary cities
  • abortion
  • out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families
  • affirmative action
  • illegal immigration (or even the use of the word “illegal” instead of “undocumented”)

It doesn’t matter that, beyond the university, citizens have varied views on these issues or that our legislatures and courts are preoccupied with them. What matters is that even debating these vexed issues on campus violates the tenets of social justice. Why? Because self-identified victims’ groups always claim the discussion itself harms them.

Administrators with an instinct for self-preservation seldom oppose these victims’ groups. None has an inkling that the very concept of social justice, as well as its specific content, is controversial. Towering scholars like Friedrich Hayek think it is vacuous. Moral people can think affirmative action, sanctuary cities, and artificially high minimum wages hurt the poor and minorities. No matter. Right-thinking administrators know what social justice means, and they won’t brook any opposing views.

Three Steps to Open Campuses to Free Speech

If universities want to undo this mess and prevent future Middlebury Mobs, they must act decisively on three fronts.

First, they must publish a clear statement of free speech principles. Crucially, it must not say free-speech rights are tempered by considerations of social justice or civility. Valuable as those are, they are often used to undermine free speech and open debate. Don’t open that door.

Of course, the First Amendment allows some reasonable restrictions. You cannot threaten or coerce, and you cannot use a bullhorn at 2 a.m. You cannot shout down a professor or another student in class. Why shouldn’t the same laws that apply downtown apply on campus?

Second, good principles must actually be implemented. That task usually falls to the student affairs office. “Falls” is the right word. Their institutional responsibilities mean they care more about avoiding conflicts on campus than about encouraging free speech and debate among contending ideas. They will promote free speech only if senior university leadership requires it, demands accountability, and insists on punishment for students who bully others and squelch alternative views. If the central administration doesn’t do that, if the board of trustees does not insist on it, then even the best principles will die in practice.

Third, students must be taught why free speech matters for their education and for a constitutional democracy. That should begin during orientation week, which should spell out why real research, original inquiry, and serious teaching require free questioning of established conventions. They should be told that, if they violate these principles, they will face serious consequences precisely because free speech is essential to teaching, learning, and research. Start early. Explain these fundamental principles and their rationale to students in their letters of acceptance and reinforce them during orientation.

To see why these principles matter for education, you need only ask, “Why are there no great social scientists in dictatorships?” The answer is simple. Truly open social inquiry might produce data, debates, and conclusions that threaten the ruling regime. That’s why dictatorships sharply constrain such inquiry and why independent thinkers avoid these fields entirely. Better to study physics.

Fortunately, we have no such official constraints in the United States. But we do have informal constraints from Social Justice Vigilantes and campus bureaucrats, from mobs determined to shout down speakers and spineless professors who flinch from inviting them. After Middlebury, how many colleges will roll out the red carpet for Charles Murray, who has written brilliantly about the dilemmas of America’s poor?

These pressures have already chased opposing political views out of the humanities and many of the social sciences. On campus after campus, they have produced a soft despotism and ideological conformity that threaten the core mission of higher education.

This decline can be reversed, but only if enough students, faculty, alumni, and boards of trustees push back and if state legislatures demand free speech in public institutions. The task begins with strong free-speech principles and tough-minded implementation.

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 and can be reached at

Show commentsHide Comments