Americans are fighting a new war on college campuses — this time over free speech — and no one is winning.
On the left, aggressive protesters have silenced speeches by conservative thinkers, using intolerance to demand tolerance. On the right, conservatives condemn the suppression of free speech with equally ill-conceived tactics. A recent model policy from the Goldwater Institute urges state legislators to not only intervene in the campus disciplinary process for public universities but also mandate punishments, such as one-year suspensions or even expulsions for any student twice found responsible for “infringing the expressive rights of others.”
ProfessorWatchlist.org, launched in November of 2016 by Turning Point USA, lists close to 200 instructors who, it maintains, “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” At Cornell University, a conservative measure to increase “ideological diversity” by mandating hiring practices was defeated by one vote in the student assembly in February.
We can do better than this. Protecting free speech and academic freedom is not a liberal or conservative issue. It’s an American issue. And it’s a problem we must solve together. For colleges and universities, this requires policy changes (e.g., eliminating censorship codes) as well as cultural changes (i.e., convincing more members of the campus community, from faculty to students to administrators, that free speech and open discussion is not only desirable, but worth defending).
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), at least 42 colleges and universities withdrew invitations to controversial speakers in 2016 — double the number that were withdrawn in 2015. FIRE’s research also shows that 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities have speech codes, or regulations that prohibit expression normally protected by the First Amendment.
“This goes on all over the country on campuses,” Bill Maher recently commented, criticizing his fellow liberals for preventing Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkeley. “I feel like this is the liberals’ version of book burning. And it’s got to stop.”
Some institutions and academics are responding to the challenge. In May, Middlebury College disciplined 67 students for their role in suppressing a speech by author Charles Murray (although none of the students was suspended or expelled). Ideological opposites Cornel West and Robert George, both professors at Princeton, issued a joint statement after the Middlebury incident, supporting “truth seeking, democracy, and freedom of thought and expression.” The Association for Governing Boards, an organization that advises boards of trustees, strongly endorsed free expression and tolerance in its recent statement on “Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility.”
Yet there are still challenges to overcome at other campuses. Recently, campus police couldn’t guarantee Professor Bret Weinstein’s safety at Evergreen State College after he raised concerns and asked for discussion around a “day of absence” officially sanctioned by the school. The students protesting and threatening Weinstein, however, were given an audience with their college’s president. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers, in misguided attempts to curtail censorship, are responding with calls to eliminate federal funding for schools that restrict speech.
At their best, college campuses are safe havens for intellectual freedom — places to confront and explore our differences and learn from the interactions. At their worst, they can become battlegrounds where political tribes fight for territory. Publicly shaming speakers on ideological grounds or targeting professors based on their political affiliation does not challenge their ideas. By unleashing politically motivated bullying, from the left or the right, the nation takes an intellectual risk that imagination will be replaced by fear, innovation by intimidation.
Free speech is a shared American value. Protecting it requires forming unlikely allies not unnecessary enemies. Our uncivil war needs to end.
Sarah Ruger directs the Charles Koch Institute’s free expression initiatives.
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