When it comes to free speech on American campuses, there seems to be a law of conservation at work: Just when the internal threat of censorship from left-wing campus activists is abating, the external threat from right-wing lawmakers starts rising. Given that the new threat relies not on the decibel level of immature 18-year-olds but the state power of motivated adults, it may be much harder to fight.
Concerns about political correctness on campus date back at least 25 years before Philip Roth wrote The Human Stain, his brilliant novel depicting the travails of a half-black classics professor pretending to be Jewish who gets summarily fired after black students take offense over his use of the word “spooks.” But after a brief hiatus, these concerns came back with a vengeance in the last decade, at least partly because a well-oiled right-wing machine emerged to pounce on every student transgression—big and small, real and imagined, in order to paint a picture of a “free speech crisis” in academia.
Consider the experience of Ursinus College’s Jonathan Marks, a conservative professor who writes extensively about higher education: He recounts with amusement how first The College Fix, a right-wing campus watchdog website, and then Breitbart picked up a piece he wrote for Commentary earlier this year making fun of California State Fresno’s new faculty and staff rules prescribing that “everyone be nice to each other.” Both outfits distorted the story and blamed students who had nothing to do with the rules, because that was better aligned with their narrative of easily triggered snowflakes demanding safe spaces. The College Fix appended a grudging “update” after some coaxing from Marks, but Breitbart didn’t bother. “If you investigated the dental profession with as much intensity as college campuses and devoted entire websites to covering it, you could come up with lots of bad things too,” he laughs.
Though the notion of a campus free speech crisis may be overblown, it’s still a problem. Otherwise, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a liberal, wouldn’t write about the damage that a culture rife with trigger warnings and microaggressions does to the cause of free and open dialogue. Vox even thought it fit to run a piece by a liberal professor under a pseudonym complaining that some of his liberal students “terrify” him.
But regardless of how one characterizes what’s transpiring on campuses, there are encouraging signs that things are getting better.
A report last year by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an outfit that does yeoman’s work tracking the threats to free speech in colleges, found that the percentage of institutions with speech codes “that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech,” a genuine problem in the 1990s, had diminished by 42 percentage points since 2009 in the sample it surveyed. Even better, 37 universities earned its green light rating for having no speech codes whatsoever compared to merely eight in 2009. Meanwhile, 27 schools or faculty bodies embraced University of Chicago’s widely-praised free speech principles—up from just seven the year before. The principles reaffirm the university’s commitment to stand firm against the disinvitation of controversial speakers or disruption of events.
There is more good news on the disinvitation front: After peaking in 2016 at 43 disinvitations, the number plummeted to 18 last year, according to FIRE’s non-comprehensive tracking list. This year, the disinvitation number has moved up to 30—including 13 leftist speakers—but that’s still lower than the peak. The most likely reason for the overall drop isn’t self-censorship or state laws protecting campus speech, Acadia University’s Jeffrey Adam Sachs has convincingly argued. Rather, it is a combination of boredom over the tactics of campus yahoos and a new culture of campus tolerance with students forming clubs and networks to promote respectful cross-political dialogue. It also helps that, unlike 2016, this is not a polarizing presidential election year.
But even as universities are beginning to defuse the threat to free speech from leftist radicals on campus, they are facing new ones from right-wing lawmakers off campus.
Conservatives warn day and night about liberal political correctness but give scarcely a thought to how their own brand of patriotic correctness stifles free expression. If they did, they wouldn’t be instigating anti-flag-burning amendments on a regular basis. And they certainly wouldn’t have stood squarely behind this president when he berated 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and demanded that the NFL fire him.
Nor are conservative lawmakers shy about launching their own jihad on academic freedom to squelch professors or viewpoints they dislike.
There is a rising trend that goes something like this, as per New York University’s Jonathan Haidt: A left-wing professor says something provocative on social media or elsewhere and the right-wing media goes into overdrive, covering the story ad nauseum to gin up viewer outrage. Republican politicos jump in and demand action. University administrators, terrified of the PR damage but unworried about academic freedom, put the professor on leave and begin the “process of termination,” especially if the professor isn’t tenured. (Haidt, incidentally, is no liberal pleader. He is a celebrity in conservative circles because he founded the highly respected Heterodox Academy, whose purpose is to address the lack of intellectual diversity on liberal-dominated campuses.)
In just the last six months, Acadia University’s Sachs has documented several incidents in Iowa, California, and Connecticut that fit exactly this pattern.
In another incident just last month, the University of Alabama fired Jamie R. Riley, its black assistant vice president and dean of students, after Breitbart exposed past tweets in which Riley criticized the American flag and made a connection between police and racism. Meanwhile, the chief of staff of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R–Neb.) personally called and threatened University of Nebraska Professor Ari Kohen for “liking” a Facebook post depicting a defaced campaign sign of the congressman showing googly eyes and calling him Fartenberry. The staffer accused Kohen of encouraging “vandalism,” arguably an attempt at chilling speech.
It isn’t just professors that Republicans are going after. In January, FIRE had to send a cease-and-desist letter to the University of Georgia after it invited an investigation by the state’s Republican attorney general into a philosophy graduate student who called white people “crappy” at a meeting.
Meanwhile, bills are proliferating across Republican-controlled states such as Wisconsin requiring universities to expel students engaging in “disruptive” protests, which could potentially include anything from loud clapping to walkouts, according to the ACLU. Also in Wisconsin, a Republican lawmaker threatened to cut the University of Wisconsin’s budget over an “obscene” reading assignment aimed at exploring how sexual preferences can lead to racial segregation in the gay community.
In another disturbing incident, Rep. Ted Budd (R–N.C.), successfully petitioned the Department of Education secretary to investigate Duke University and the University of North Carolina to ensure that the $235,000 grant that the universities’ Middle East consortium received isn’t being used to promote “anti-Israel bias.”
Conservatives pose as the guardians of free speech against the excesses of political correctness. Yet they have few qualms about deploying the purse and power of the state to police the boundaries of acceptable speech and speakers. It is too bad that conservatives’ threat of censorship is heating up just when campus snowflakes are showing signs of melting away.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.
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