Op-Ed: Half of college students aren’t sure protecting free speech is important. That’s bad news


Last month, a small group of protesters at Lewis & Clark College law school tried to shut down visiting lecturer Christina Hoff Sommers, a libertarian feminist critical of feminist dogma on “rape culture,” the pay gap and other issues. They chanted, shouted, played loud music and sang, “We will fight for justice until Christina’s gone.” Appalled commentators deplored the intolerance, but then came a spate of “nothing to see here” articles. Free speech on campus is doing fine, progressive pundits scoffed; it’s absurd to paint a few left-wing students as a danger to freedom when we face right-wing authoritarianism in government.

But it should be possible to be against more than one threat at a time. And the climate on college campuses in recent years is very much a threat to the principles of a free society.

The “no problem” argument is based mainly on a poll, the General Social Survey, which shows steadily rising support for allowing “offensive” speakers a platform, especially in the under-35 age group. But it’s not clear how relevant that survey is to present-day campus speech battles. Its examples of controversial speakers include a homosexual (absurdly dated) and an atheist (ditto). On the one item that is relevant to current controversies — allowing a speech by a racist — support has dropped, notably among young adults.


Another supposedly reassuring poll, the Gallup-Knight Foundation survey, found that 70% of students felt it was more important for colleges to have “an open learning environment” with diverse viewpoints, even at the cost of allowing offensive speech, than to create a “positive” environment by censoring such expression.

And yet, when about 30% of college students favor censorship, it should be a cause for alarm — especially because that’s up from 22% two years ago. Moreover, 53% of students believe “promoting an inclusive society” is a higher priority than protecting free speech rights. Over a third say it is sometimes acceptable to shout a speaker down, and one in 10 approve of violent disruption. The last figure may seem small, but it means some 2 million collegians in the United States believe it can be OK to use violence to stop speech they don’t like. That’s not good news.

Some 2 million collegians in the United States believe it can be OK to use violence to stop speech they don’t like.

Those who believe the problem is overblown note that incidents of “deplatforming” — speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking — are rare. The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, a speech advocacy group, documented just 35 such attempts in 2017, mostly unsuccessful. While this list is not complete — it omits, for instance, American University’s cancellation of a panel on feminism, censorship and Title IX in September — it is true that there’s no epidemic of campus disinvitations.

But even rare deplatforming efforts can have a chilling effect, especially when they involve violent mobs — as during political scientist Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury College a year ago. Campus groups may hesitate to bring controversial speakers when it means extra headaches and war-zone-level security.

Besides, disinvitations are only a part of the problem. Faculty members can also get in trouble for wrongthink. In 2015, Northwestern University film studies professor Laura Kipnis was hit with a Title IX “hostile environment” complaint for writing an essay that criticized what she considers to be hyperbolic claims about sexual violence on campus. She was cleared, but the investigation itself was intimidating.


Others have been less lucky. Andrea Quenette, a professor of communication at the University of Kansas, lost her tenure-track position in 2016 after student complaints about her allegedly insensitive comments in a class discussion of racial issues. One of her offenses was saying the N-word in order to make a point about racial slurs, but she was also accused of “lack of empathy” for saying that minority students’ higher dropout rates were due to academic problems rather than feeling unsafe on campus.

Meanwhile, hundreds of schools have created special teams to handle reports of bias, defined broadly enough to include heretical opinions. In some cases, such teams have investigated professors for encouraging classroom debate of contentious viewpoints — for instance, that transgender identities are not necessarily real — and advised them to avoid such topics.

Underlying these trends is a doctrine deeply destructive to liberty: that speech perceived as hurtful not only perpetuates oppression but constitutes violence. The statement issued by the protesters who disrupted Sommers’ speech at Lewis & Clark asserted that freedom of speech “stops when it has a negative and violent impact.”

Yet pundits who pooh-pooh concerns about the illiberal campus left — voiced not only by conservatives and libertarians but by liberals such as Jonathan Chait and Wendy Kaminer — often show a disturbing tendency to minimize attacks on speech.

In GQ, Mari Uyehara suggests that the disruptions of Sommers’ speech were exactly what Sommers wanted — apparently because a video of the event shows her smiling at one point. Splinter’s Clio Chang points out that Sommers’ talk was sponsored by a conservative group — as if this excused trying to silence her — and argues that the real threat to campus freedoms comes from “right-wing donors” promoting reactionary ideas. (Never mind the overwhelming dominance of left-wing views in the universities.) Another Sommers critic, City University of New York professor Angus Johnston, has defended shout-downs of dissenters with Orwellian euphemisms like “noisy contestation.”

Yes, some conservatives who deplore hypersensitive campus bullies are hypocrites — for instance, if they have no problem with the press-bashing hypersensitive bully in the White House, or if they’re fine with a leftist adjunct professor being fired after defending a Black Lives Matter event on Fox News. But that doesn’t excuse the hypocrites on the left.


Amid the tribal squabbling over which side is worse, free speech is losing. On college campuses, which should be nurturing open minds, that loss is tragic.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason and the author of “Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality.”

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