Why the Campuses Matter

Conservative and center-left criticism of the illiberal mischief of anti-free speech college students is often dismissed as overblown and sensationalized. And surely it sometimes is. But the efforts by left-wing protesters to shut down Donald Trump’s peaceful rally in San Jose show that the beliefs and tactics that were first put into practice on college campuses are not contained there. As Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine:

A liberal sees Trump’s ability to deliver a speech before supporters as a fundamental political right worth defending. A radical sees this “right” as coming at the expense of subordinate classes, and thus not worth protecting.

I started writing about this resurgent phenomenon at the beginning of last year. The pushback on the left has evolved from an outright denial that any such trend exists to an acknowledgement that it may exist, but it’s just the antics of some goofy college kids. But the campus was merely the staging ground for most displays of left-wing ideological repression because it is one of the few places the illiberal left has the power to block speakers and writers deemed oppressive.

Liberal norms are fragile, and once they start to fray anywhere in our society there is a risk that the decay will spread. This is especially true when the institutions under threat are responsible for molding the minds of the next generation of norm-setting elites.

And it’s not just about free speech: As we’ve noted before, some of the authoritarian sex codes first pioneered on campuses a generation ago have suddenly come roaring into the mainstream. If a generation from now we find ourselves living in a world where shouting down speakers is a widely accepted strategy of political engagement, small-l liberals of all political stripes will have wished that they engaged the campus problem earlier and more forcefully.

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