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campus culture wars
Colleges Are Defending Free Speech. Will Students Follow Suit?

The University of Chicago’s highly-publicized letter declaring the school’s commitment to diversity of opinion seems to have inspired a slew of imitators, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

FIRE is seeing an encouraging uptick in pro-free speech statements by college administrators early in this academic year. In just a few weeks’ time, administrators at schools like Columbia University, Brown University, and Claremont Mckenna College (CMC) have all made public statements committing to protect freedom of expression on campus.

The catalyst for this recent batch of speech-friendly statements seems to be the “academic freedom letter” the University of Chicago (UChicago) sent to incoming students last month, advising them not to expect “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” when they arrive on campus. The letter was widely reported on, and reignited the national debate over campus speech restrictions. It also seems to have resonated with many other college administrators.

This is a welcome development. Campus leaders remained silent, by and large, for the past two years as the traditions of liberal education took a thrashing on college campuses across the country, and statements like these set a powerful and much-needed moral example.

That said, it’s worth highlighting two caveats: First, declaring one’s commitment to “academic freedom” in the abstract is easier than backing it up when it matters. For example, when Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali from its commencement ceremony in 2014 due to protests about her controversial opinions on Islam, it denied that it was reneging on its commitment to wide-ranging debate. “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history,” the University wrote in its Orwellian statement dis-inviting Ali, “Ms. Hirsi Ali is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.”

Second, the main resistance to a vigorous free speech culture at U.S. colleges and universities increasingly comes from students, not censorious administrators. As we’ve written: “Instead of formal speech codes backed by university administrations, campus illiberalism is increasingly manifested in informal undergraduate culture: Speakers are shouted down by angry crowds; student governments sanction minority student groups for holding unpopular events; faculty mentors who write emails challenging the orthodoxy are pressed by their own students to resign.” Campus administrators, by making the rules and setting the tone, can make a real difference. But the most important pushback against illiberalism will have to come from students themselves, by changing their approach to people with whom they disagree.

In short, advocates of liberal education should cheer the early signs of a turnaround on college campuses. But we shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet.

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  • Andrew Allison

    “Second, the main resistance to a vigorous free speech culture at U.S. colleges and universities increasingly comes from students, not censorious administrators.” It’s been apparent for some time now that the inmates are running these asylums from the real world. The question is, for how long are we taxpayers prepared to finance this madness?

  • Robert Bennett

    The only way that college administrations will get students to allow free speech is to make it clear that disruption of meetings, vandalism and other attempts to stifle speech will be met with severe, enforceable penalties, including expulsion or suspension.

  • Beauceron

    First, universities are NOT defending free speech. A small number are saying they will defend free speech. We’ll see what happens when a few dozen angry black/latinx students label them all as racist, colonialist oppressors. I’d bet they fold pretty quickly.

    Second, the Left hates free speech. Always has. For them free speech is limited to themselves are those to the left of whatever position they hold. Free speech to the right of their position is branded racist, bigoted, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc. That allows universities to take the line that, although they are for free speech, they are against hate speech.

    • Kevin

      Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.
      It’s easier to hold administrators’ feet to the fire and shame them if they think about knuckling under if they first make a statement committing to ethical behavior.

  • seattleoutcast

    Students are merely parroting what they learn from their professors and mentors. To really return to a classically liberal education, I recommend winnowing out certain sociological departments and teaching a curriculum of classical Western courses. Student attitudes will follow.

    Note, I am speaking from experience. Certain campus professors love to manufacture outrage by cherry picking history. Administrators are bullied (not a difficult job for these spineless people) into making grievance courses mandatory. In fact, even typical certificate programs such as welding, machining and CAD require grievance courses. The result is emotional, rather than rational, behavior by the students.

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