College and university campuses, more so than any other of our institutions, are supposed to value the free and open exchange of ideas. In fact, their sole purpose is to pursue and disseminate knowledge. After all, how can students fully understand a subject if they never encounter multiple perspectives on the issue?
Indeed, far from sheltering young people from challenging or disturbing concepts, the goal of higher education is to expose them to differing opinions and ideas. That way, they may learn to wrestle with opposing views and ultimately make an informed decision on any issue. This process leads not only to personal and intellectual growth, but also to societal growth, as the political health of our nation depends on an informed citizenry.
George Washington, reflecting on the importance of higher education in a democracy, told Congress that “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of Science and Literature.” He believed that acquiring knowledge was the “surest basis of public happiness,” and wrote to fellow founder John Adams, suggesting that a “national University in this country is a thing to be desired.”
However, over the last few decades, American institutions of higher learning have failed to live up to the trust our founders placed in them. Most egregiously, they have increasingly infringed upon the 1st Amendment, suppressing the speech of students and faculty alike and stifling the exchange of information and ideas. Read on to learn about the foundations of this movement and what we can do to stop it.
The history of the anti-free speech movement
Starting in the 1980s, college and university faculty and administrators began transforming campuses to make them more “politically correct.” This involved replacing the historical cannon with more multicultural authors and establishing speech codes to protect women and minorities from “hate speech.”
Around the same time, the self-esteem movement, which directed parents and educators to shower children with lavish, unconditional praise, became the rage in K-8 classrooms. This well-intentioned, but often misapplied, educational philosophy led adults to protect students’ fragile self-esteem by sheltering them from all forms of criticism or adverse consequences. Consequently, many young people began to expect educational institutions to safeguard their feelings.
Not being able to naturally develop an authentic sense of self-esteem, young people sought out external sources of validation. One popular way for students to affirm their identities was to become affiliated with a larger group, which resulted in the growth of identity politics across college campuses nationwide. As a result, being part of a victim class became something to aspire to, a way of gaining the moral high ground in any argument.
Sociologists Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell define this “victimhood culture” as follows:
“A culture of victimhood is one characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”
Combined, these societal changes have led to a climate of fear and intimidation on college and university campuses, with students and faculty hesitant to voice their opinions for fear of being denounced as “hateful.” The news in the past few years is full of stories about individuals being shouted down, having their invitations to speak rescinded, and even being physically assaulted for having a differing opinion about an emotionally charged topic.
The free-speech climate on campuses today
Incidents like these – as well as the demand for “trigger warnings,” the war against “micro-aggressions,” and so on – reveal how far down the Orwellian road the university system has traveled. People are now demanding conformity as a way to foster diversity and, ironically, excluding those who may have a different idea of inclusivity. In attempting to make campuses a “safe space,” many students, teachers, and administrators are actually making campuses dangerous for people whose viewpoints differ from the campus’ majority opinion.
The 1st Amendment is no longer considered sacrosanct on our colleges and universities. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, fully two-thirds of college-aged respondents thought that colleges should be able to restrict racial slurs and language designed to offend certain groups.
Roughly the same percentage believe that colleges have the right to control whether students can wear politically insensitive costumes. Thus, it is not surprising that all across America, campuses are instituting strict speech codes, designating certain areas as “free-speech zones,” and defunding student-run periodicals that publish materials deemed to be in any way “offensive.”
Some academics have even explicitly decried the notion of free speech. After the 2012 Benghazi attack, university professors Anthea Butler and Eric Posner stated that Americans place too high a value on free speech. Posner added that our nation’s resistance to curbing free speech in deference to foreign policy interests was a “bizarre principle.” In The Los Angeles Times, Northwestern University professor Laura Beth Nielsen argued that hate speech should be restricted because “Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies.”
In 2015, a Yale lecturer resigned after being publicly castigated for questioning whether it was healthy for students to give up their free-speech rights in order to protect others’ feelings. Her “crime” involved writing an e-mail in response to the university’s strongly-worded “suggestion” that students should avoid culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. She wrote: “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
Her words resonate well beyond her specific situation. They not only speak to the suppression of free speech on college campuses, but they also give rise to alarming questions about modern society and why our students are eagerly adopting these authoritarian attitudes.
The future of free speech on campus
The good news is that people are starting to notice how far anti-free-speech activists have gone in their efforts to suppress speech with which they disagree. After a number of violent student demonstrations and protests in 2016, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent incoming students a letter that spelled out the school’s dedication to academic freedom and warned them not to expect “safe spaces,” trigger warnings, or censorship.
Students are also finding ways to regain their right to free expression. Earlier this year, several dozen young people from nearly 20 colleges met at the University of Chicago to initiate a nation-wide campus free-speech movement. With a goal of protecting all forms of speech – even potentially offensive speech – the students released a proclamation that they hope other students will sign and live by.
Additionally, organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have been formed to protect the rights of students. The nonpartisan group has filed numerous law suits on behalf of students whose rights have been infringed since its inception in 1999. With the help of this group and others like it, we can turn back the tide of illiberalism and help institutions of higher education develop truly informed citizens, who are capable of intelligent governance.