Not a Happy Campus
“An Alarming Concentration of Anti-Speech Activity”

The authoritarian antics of left-wing campus activists and craven administrators in the 2015-2016 academic year represented the most intense institutional threat to free speech in the United States in a generation, according to an anti-censorship watchdog. The Associated Press reports:

The “Jefferson Muzzles,” those dubious awards shaming the nation’s worst free-speech offenders, are taking aim at higher education this year — from tarring those at Yale who warned students against donning culturally insensitive Halloween costumes to feathering others for muzzling the press and more.

… “Never in our 25 years of awarding the Jefferson Muzzles have we observed such an alarming concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw last year on college campuses across the country,” according to the center’s statement Wednesday that announced the “winners.”

It’s important not to overstate things: The United States enjoys some of the most robust speech protections in the world, and the fact that campuses have devolved into fits of censorship by overzealous students over the last year does not mean that the First Amendment is dead, in letter or in spirit. But one way that America’s free speech tradition survives is through the efforts of groups like the Jefferson Muzzles, which identify and target threats to liberty before they menace a larger share of the body politic. So without overhyping their significance, it’s important to take creeping campus censorship seriously.

The biggest question is what, if anything, there is to do about it. There are some policy changes that could be productive. Several U.S. Senators, for example, are taking aim at the Office for Civil Rights in Education, the highly ideological federal agency that has used its powers to protect students from “harassment” to curtail constitutionally protected speech. And some state legislatures are starting to ask questions about state funding for campus diversity bureaucracies, many of which have questionable educational value and which often serve as vehicles for left-wing censors to intimidate political opponents.

Another avenue we’ve proposed: Colleges that care about free and open expression “should ask prospective students to demonstrate—through essays, recommendations, and extra-curricular activities their independence, toughness, and openness to opposing views.” A crop of students admitted with this criterion in mind might be less likely to demand that “trigger warnings” be slapped onto innocuous academic texts, or that students who disagree with them be forced to undergo punitive “diversity training.”

Ultimately, however, the tide of campus illiberalism probably won’t be beaten back through a policy change, but through sustained persuasion and advocacy by groups and individuals who think that America’s free speech tradition is worth preserving—in higher education, and in society at large.

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