As the campus anti-free speech movement grows in strength and intensity, President Obama—for the second time in three months—has emphasized the importance of free and open debate at U.S. universities. Here are some excerpts from the president’s comments in an interview with George Stephanopoulos:
And it’s interesting, you know; I’ve now got daughters who—one’s about to go to college. The other one’s going to be on her way in a few years. And then we talk about this at the dinner table. And I say to them, Listen, if you hear somebody using a racial epithet, if you hear somebody who’s anti-Semitic, if you see an injustice, I want you to speak out, and I want you to be firm and clear, and I want you to protect people who many not have voices themselves. I want you to be somebody who’s strong and sees themselves as somebody who’s looking out for the vulnerable.But I tell them, I want you also to be able to listen. I don’t want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up, and that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side. And so when I hear, for example, folks on college campuses saying, “We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus… because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas,” I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism and I think you’re not going to be as effective. […]And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. You know, and yes, does that put more of a burden on minority students, or gay students, or Jewish students, or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them. But you’re not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society that those students want without taking it on in a full and clear and courageous way.
These comments are quite welcome, but it’s important to note two qualifications. First, the president has yet to acknowledge the very substantial role his administration has played in fomenting the PC movement, by using federal equal protection laws to order universities to restrict due process and freedom of speech (however much it may later have walked some of those efforts back). Second, his critique of campus illiberalism is not as strong as we would would like. His remarks suggest that the only problem with shutting down opposing viewpoints is that “you’re not going to be as effective.” In fact, the problems with the authoritarian strategies that activists have been employing run much deeper than that. These strategies violate other students’ fundamental rights and they obscure the fact that much of the underlying activist agenda is quite misguided.Still, the president was clearly not aiming his remarks at critics of campus PC. He was aiming them at the overzealous left-wing students who have been making national headlines with their illiberal tactics over the last several weeks. Political leaders can often be effective when they take on members of their own coalition, so it’s possible that the president’s remarks will have a real impact on the campus crusaders. But we’re not getting our hopes up, either.