The Death of Free Speech on Campus
Few of us like to be exposed to opinions contrary to our own or to be challenged by facts that challenge our opinions. There is a natural temptation to suppress opinions that do not comport with our own, as Justice Holmes noted: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition.”
There are any number of reasons to resist the totalitarian temptation, however. Most of us lack the power to enforce our orthodoxy on others. Some may resist the temptation when they do possess the power out of the recognition that one day in the future others might possess the power to suppress their thought and expression.
Or perhaps we are products of a culture that places a supreme value on the freedom of individuals to form their own opinions and express them as to the proper ends of life and were raised on the quote attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Our founding fathers fashioned a Bill of Rights that gave pride of place to freedom of speech, and which sought to avoid any abridgment of that freedom by government. But as Judge Learned Hand warned, no legal regime is sufficient in and of itself to protect freedom of speech, if its underlying rationale is not embedded deep in the fiber of the people: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts… Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women, when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”
The evidence mounts that appreciation of the values underlying the First Amendment can no longer be assumed at either the popular or elite level. A recent Rasmussen poll reveals that 55% of Americans agree that the government should be allowed to review candidates’ campaign ads for their accuracy and punish those it deems false; only 31% disagreed. While that result in part reflects the public’s dismal and justified view of the probity of politicians and their campaign propaganda, still the majority seem blissfully unaware that founding fathers viewed the government as the greatest threat to freedom of speech and would have recoiled at the idea of the government as the arbiter of permissible political speech.
PERHAPS EVEN MORE FRIGHTENING is the declining appreciation at the elite level for individual autonomy to think and speak as one wants. Our elites are being educated on campuses governed by speech codes whose underlying premise is that no members of favored “identity groups” should ever suffer any offense. The idea that individuals or groups have a “right” never to feel offended is antithetical to the robust speech that the First Amendment seeks to protect.
Mark Steyn, who is all too familiar with the thought control police from his battles with various Canadian human rights commissions, describes modern universities as “no longer institutions of inquiry but ‘safe spaces’ where delicate flowers of diversity of race, sex, orientation, ‘gender fluidity’ and everything else except diversity of thought have to be protected from exposure to any unsafe ideas. As it happens, the biggest ‘safe space’ on the planet is the Muslim world.”
Muslims have at least partially succeeded in imposing Islamic blasphemy laws on the rest of the world. Consider the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose invitation to speak at the Brandeis commencement was recently rescinded at the urging of Muslim groups and the usual cast of their useful idiots. In the identity-obsessed university culture, Hirsi Ali should hit all the right buttons: She is a woman, black, Somalian-born, an atheist, and crusader for women. Her only problem is that she has focused her energies on the misogyny of Islamic societies – female mutilation, forced consanguine and child marriages, honor killings. She is herself a victim of all but honor killing, and lived under armed guard as a parliamentarian in the Netherlands, after her collaborator on a film on women in Islamic society, Theodore Van Gogh. had his throat slit. That it can be empirically demonstrated that the practices she describes have deep roots in contemporary Islamic societies availed her nothing.
Similarly, Brown University officials took no steps last October to ensure that former NYPD Superintendent Raymond Kelly would be able to complete a scheduled speech on campus, despite being warned days in advance of planned disruptions and having had their offer to allow expanded time for questions and debate rejected. Kelly incurred the wrath of Muslim groups for the NYPD’s surveillance of mosques for signs terrorist activity. Again, all the evidence that that surveillance had enabled the NYPD to nip numerous terrorist plots in the bud did not earn Kelly the right to be heard – or at least not if Muslim students and townies felt “offended.”
Of course, not all ethnic minorities are treated with the same kid gloves. Few universities have acted to protect Jewish students from the “hurt” of the annual Israel Apartheid Week hate fests, and some have even allowed academic departments and professors to put their imprimatur on those activities via the sponsorship of events and speakers. Jewish students at whom anti-Semitic insults and even threats are hurled have little chance of redress, especially if those hurling the insults are Muslims or other members of favored minorities. The campus as a “safe place” exists only for selected groups.
WHILE CAMPUS ADMINISTRATORS push all sorts of affirmative action quotas for various minorities – except, of course, Asians — the one type of diversity in which they have no interest is precisely that of greatest relevance to their educational mission: ideological diversity. Outside of the hard sciences and engineering faculties, probably no more than 10% of most faculties voted Republican in 2012, and the more elite the university the lower the percentage. The bitter tenure fights over Thomas Pangle at Yale in the late ’70s and Peter Berkowitz at Harvard a decade later — both of whom were enormously popular and widely published teachers, with an interest in classical philosophy — revealed how far the country’s leading universities are, in Berkowitz’s words, from fostering “a spirit of tolerant of dissent [and] keen on competition between rival opinions and ideas.”
For most of the twelve contributors to Why I Turned Right (2007), the monolithic nature of American academia, especially at the elite universities, and the lack of encouragement of debate, first opened their eyes. David Brooks of The New York Times reported that he never had a conservative professor at the University of Chicago, despite it being the home of the “Chicago school” of economics. (On a personal note, I can say that when I was an undergraduate at University of Chicago a decade earlier, there were still a number of conservative scholars on the social science and humanities faculties, and many professors whose politics could not be remotely discerned from their teaching. Still I assiduously avoided any exposure to the great Milton Friedman to my lasting shame.) Psychiatrist Sally Saltel was 36 years old and an assistant professor at Yale for five years before she met her first Republican. For former Harvard lecturer Stanley Kurtz the turning point came when many faculty members at Berkeley attempted to prevent U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick from speaking.
In a column in the Wall Street Journal this week, Daniel Henniger traces the regnant campus attitudes to philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the godfather of campus speech codes and political correctness. Marcuse had the old Marxist penchant for Orwellian inversion of terms according to “objective” criterion best discerned by him. “The restoration of freedom of thought,” he taught, “may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions.” Traditional notions of “tolerance,” he argued are often just means for protecting entrenched oppression. And thus “the [liberating] objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes and opinions.” “Certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed,” he preached, and accordingly “certain groups and movements” cannot be tolerated.
Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Repressive Tolerance were also widely read by undergraduates in my day. But the inmates had not yet taken over the asylum, and they would have gained little assent from the faculty and administration. But those undergraduates of my generation have gone on to spread the Marcusian gospel throughout higher education. The Commissars of Truth of the future are being produced on today’s campuses.
STEYN QUOTES SWARTHMORE COLLEGE STUDENT Erin Ching who protests, in a letter to the student paper, “the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.”Harvard Crimson oped writer Sandra Korn offers a full-blown plan for ensuring that exposure to differing views is not inflicted on students. In a recent, oped, she decries the whole notion of academic freedom and urges in its place what she terms academic justice. Only those who advocate justice, as defined by Korn, would be allowed to speak with the authority of a position on the Harvard faculty, for “only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand.”
Among those she would dismiss are political philosopher Harvey Mansfield for expressing the “sexist” view that a lack of female modesty and the proliferation of harassment charges are not entirely unrelated. She quotes approvingly of the American Studies Association’s resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israel on the grounds that “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation.” I wonder if she knows that under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation, there were no universities of any kind in the West Bank or Gaza, and that Israel built seven for Palestinians.
Critic Bruce Bawer does something I can never imagine inflicting upon myself and dives into Korn’s larger corpus of work. The result tells us a good deal about the value of the Harvard education for which her parents shelled out close to $300,000. Fortunately, they can afford it. This avatar of social justice grew up in a home purchased for $800,000 in 1998. Her mother is a pediatric endocrinologist and her father’s website boasts that he has raised $250 million of capital.
One column suggests the value of her concentration in gender studies. She protests those professors who encourage her not to say “like” and “you know” in every sentence for imposing a “masculinist” paradigm on her speech. Bawer discovers from Harvard’s website that a history of science major, like Korn, need take no actual science courses. Korn’s undergraduate thesis seeks to demonstrate that biologists have attempted to explain gender differences using “science.” “She has learned about science – without really learning any science – in order to discredit “science,” which she puts in scare quotes,” writes Bawer.
Elsewhere she laments the jingoism of her fellow Harvard undergraduates celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, protests the cultural imperialism of Harvard distributing lecture courses via the internet, and criticizes commemorations of 9/11 that fail to pay “tribute to the Muslim victims of ‘bias crimes” in the U.S. since 9/11.” Perhaps the reason for the lack of such tributes is that there have been virtually no such crimes.
Summing up Korn’s body of writing, Bawer concludes that she “shows no sign that she has been educated at all in any sense of the term – no sign that she’s learned anything of significance about, say, history or economics, . . . , no sign that she grasps the concept of challenging one’s assumptions by taking in unfamiliar facts and grappling with ideas from one’s own.” In sum, “she’s swallowed an ideology whole and learned to spit it back. Her unoriginality, her predictability, are matched only by her colossal self-assurance.”
It is that latter characteristic – Korn’s colossal self-assurance that she can determine what is justice – even more than her ignorance and intellectual shortcomings that create such frightening intimations of what America has to look forward to from the products of its elite universities.
Next: the seepage of the contempt for free speech into the general culture.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.