Why Many Universities Make Free Speech a Low Priority


My friend Heather Mac Donald is the latest speaker to be prevented from presenting on a college campus—this time at Claremont McKenna. Heather’s talk was to show how policing saves citizens’ lives, including those of African-Americans. Heather is the one of the most eloquent speakers I know. It is outrageous that some students prevented her from speaking. But perhaps not surprising: they fear that she may persuade their fellow students that it is some of their preferred policies, not the police, that are the greater danger to minority communities.

After the suppression of Heather’s talk a Vice-President at Claremont voiced bureaucratic regret in the manner that has become familiar after similar such incidents across the country. But it is generally a mistake to believe that university administrators at these universities or many others will do what it takes to defend free speech and thus free inquiry at their institutions of learning. The best evidence of the low priority they place is that students who prevent talks are almost never disciplined, let alone expelled or prosecuted for their interference. As Robert George reminds us every day, no has yet been held accountable for the assault on Charles Murray and his host that occurred at Middlebury. No one has yet been disciplined for the recent violence at Berkeley over a speaker either.

Three reasons combine to make actual protection of free speech a low priority on colleges campuses. The first is the tendency to treat students as simple consumers rather than as participants in the university community with duties that are no less important than professors.  Administrators worry that cracking down on the students that disrupt talks may get their university a bad reputation for toughness that may discourage applicants and lower their rankings.  To be sure, there are a few universities that cultivate a reputation for free inquiry, like the gloriously tough-minded University of Chicago. But counter programming has always focused on niche markets.

Second, administrators’ other most important constituency—the faculty—generally has no passion for protecting talks by the right because they are so overwhelmingly on the left. Of course, there are a few honorable liberals who are concerned, but for many academics the kind of people who are prevented from speaking are exactly those with whom they would not like to be associated. It is important to remember that a faculty behaves in many ways like a social club, and these speakers are not in their view clubbable.

Finally, it is notable that most of the recent disruptions concerned race. Heather spoke in part about policing in black communities and while the topic of Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury was problems of working class whites, he was being attacked for his discussion of race in his decades old book, The Bell Curve. Nothing is more important to the administrators of most colleges today than diversity and thus avoiding discipline with a disproportionate effect on minorities would naturally have a higher priority than protecting free speech.

Some might argue that we should not worry too much about these high profile disruptions, because they are relatively few in number.  But they have a deterrent effect—on the willingness to invite speakers who challenge received wisdom on campus,  the willingness of such speakers to endure disruption and even violence, and perhaps most importantly the willingness of students and faculty on campus to consider departures from left-liberal orthodoxy, particularly when it touches on the matter of race. The resulting chill makes it clear that for free inquiry on many campuses, winter has already arrived.

Reader Discussion

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on April 10, 2017 at 10:10:01 am

I think the title as well as the article understate the problem. The issue isn't that universities care about free speech but give that concern low priority -- the issue is that, in all too many cases, universities outright oppose free speech.

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Image of pkoning
on April 10, 2017 at 10:46:22 am

Here you encapsulate the critical issue of our society:

"The first is the tendency to treat students as simple consumers rather than as participants in the university community ***with duties*** that are no less important than professors. "

Duties are forms of obligations.

What is being transmitted (and how) of our obligations to one another?

It is all "rights. rights, rights" all of which require obligations to be performed by someone, somewhere, somehow - and that someone is everyone with respect to everyone.

Perhaps that should be the real focus which would encompass all the "diversity and 'equity' " concerns.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 10, 2017 at 10:51:28 am

"The first is the tendency to treat students as simple consumers rather than as participants in the university community with duties that are no less important than professors. "

Why the surprise?

As R. Richard is apt to say, these children know only rights and fail to recognize that consequent to rights are *obligations*.

As for the Professoriate, again, no surprise; they are, in fact, the cast of miscreants who have inculcated in their charges this sense of entitlement without obligation.

The Faculty "social club" is not unlike all social clubs operating, and posturing, as it does under the effects of a confluence of constrained consciousness - "Hey, EVERYONE I know thinks like this, right?"

Now for a truly outrageous proposal. How about we shut down the universities for a year? I mean after all, we can also ignore our obligations and we really don;t like THEIR message.
Oops, forgot: NOT everyone I know thinks like this.
Oh, the (presumed) joys of living in a bubble!!!!

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Image of gabe
on April 10, 2017 at 11:01:59 am

The reason that applies to our entire society has been caught by Nicholas Eberstadt's phrase "A Nation of Takers."

The total catering to "entitlements;" that all desired outcomes are "Rights," without consideration that that every one of then requires the imposition of obligations on others, is dissolving the cohesion of our society; and may lead to a system for the imposition of obligations through unpleasant means.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 10, 2017 at 13:14:15 pm

Most administrators are quintessentially white privileged in the vernacular of social justice. they know the mob could be at their door - literally - if they do anything to upset them.
They're like someone running down the railway tracks with a train behind them and they can't afford to trip. I'm amazed they've lasted this long without being given an "assistant" from the social justice community.

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rudy brix
on April 10, 2017 at 14:07:33 pm

Free speech must also be linked to the cultivation of the mind. But we've moved away from that as the primary purpose of education. Now we must salute things like "passion" and "commitment" and "engagement". This is a more fundamental reason for the current chaos on campuses.

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Flagg Taylor
on April 10, 2017 at 15:55:15 pm

School Administrators are too weak-kneed to take any action. They hate confrontation which is why they love tenure....they don't have to judge who goes and who stays. Sadly, the only answer to these Fascist attacks on campus by the Alt-Left is violent confrontation by members of the larger community. Hell, if they're not going to arrest or charge anyone.....take a 2000 volt cattle prod to campus and gently tap these snowflakes on the backside while they empty their bladder into their black pants.

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Erica D
on April 10, 2017 at 17:20:55 pm

Or perhaps terminate the federal student loans scheme.

Over fifty years ago the historian C. V. Wedgwood took the question of truthfulness in writing history for granted. She also assumed that her readers could make up their own minds on the issues at hand. She had no need to preach to her readers. Those days are long past. Truthfulness is largely deceased. And readers, typically fellow faculty and (some) students require preaching. The writer must provide the argument and the moral implications. Reconstruction with a view to the reality of the past—with all the limitations that that quest involves, none of which are new—is now a thing of derision. Manipulating political and social change is the purpose, not learning.

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C. Paul Barreira
on April 11, 2017 at 06:36:32 am

The consumer angle is the window to understanding. Through the student loan scam, tuition has skyrocketed, which surely benefits the top heavy administrators who now make million dollar salaries. This education bubble of greed means that the students, themselves loaded down with debt, have to be catered to whatever they demand, since they are the conveyances of Wall Street money to administrations, lest it end. Education is simply another business where the customer must be sold what they want. Unfortunately, the watered down value of degrees means it costs hundreds of thousands in tuition to qualify for a waitress job where the debt is never extinguished, something the hapless JW protestors don't find out until the happy school days of outrage are over. They can't pay their debts and Wall Street has socialized the loan losses to taxpayers while privatizing the windfall profits to themselves.

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Fran Macadam
on April 11, 2017 at 07:53:33 am

Today's college administrators are the same kind of people as the administrators in the McCarthy era, when it was people on the left who were harassed and intimidated. Academic career came - comes - first then and now. Nowadays, of course, there are far more administrators per student than there were then, so there is greater opportunity to enforce today's single-minded party line about diversity. Although there was little diversity in faculty and staff background at colleges in the McCarthy era, there was far greater diversity of opinion. Too bad that we can't have genuine diversity in both background and opinion (i.e., education).

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Jim D
on April 11, 2017 at 09:50:36 am

To quote Camille Paglia "The College/university system is a wreck." Liberal Arts and humanities were once a study in the classics of history ant literacture. It was once so challenging that students could go to law school from the humanities and liberal arts. Today these programs are little more than day care for radical anarchist social justice warriors, rioters, protestors, anti-male and anti-family and pro-abortion feminism. As Ben Shapiro is frond of saying. No one is going to pay 50,000 salary to someone with a degree in lesbian dance. I agree to eliminate all student aid and student loans for the humanities. They should be treated as the garbage degrees they are and if parents/students wish to take them they should do so for entertainment purposes but they do not serve a purpose to our economy or our culture or our nation.

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Image of LouisM
on April 11, 2017 at 12:52:45 pm

Oh, I don't know. I suspect the schools are concerned about free speech for the right sort of speech. I suspect if Paul Krugman came to campus to speak and the Young Republicans, hooted and hollered, pounded on the windows preventing Krugman from speaking, we would see a resurgence of active support of free speech. But, that might be just me.

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Rick Caird

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.