No, the College Free-Speech Crisis Is Not a Right-Wing Conspiracy
Do not be surprised when college presidents say, "I oppose free speech on college campuses," or law deans say that President Trump’s executive order to require free speech on campuses is "unconstitutional." The reason is simple: college and university administrators and professors do not believe in free speech and do not wish to hear it in their institutions.
The opposition to free speech is a consequence of a different classification of speech in higher education: There is correct speech, and there is hate speech. Correct speech is about gender, racial, sexual, and ethnic oppression and victimhood, and the "social justice" initiatives to respond to it. Any disagreement with either the analysis of oppression and victimhood or the solution is regarded as hate speech. There is no intervening space for free speech.
We have been treated to numerous assertions by professors, administrators, and mainstream journalists that there is no free speech crisis, such as, among others, here, here, here, here, and here. Their allegedly supporting arguments are that there are really only a handful of speech shutdowns, disinvitations, and firings of professors with incorrect opinions, so move on folks, there is nothing to see here. Really, we are told, the whole issue is a right-wing conspiracy: "Thanks to a carefully orchestrated campaign, the notion that universities are hostile to the free exchange of ideas is slipping into mainstream opinion. It is a phony crisis manufactured by the same people who fuel the engines of climate denial. Right-wing activists and donors are fighting to undermine universities because their values cannot thrive there."
The reality of our colleges and universities is that they are ideologically more like monasteries and convents (although with a lot of sex) than like intellectual marketplaces. There is a monopoly of leftist ideas: progressive, Marxist, neo-Marxist, Leninist, with an increasingly strong emphasis on anti-male, anti-white, heterophobic identity politics. Non-conformists and dissidents are excluded in hiring. Today, anyone not a strong supporter of “social justice” will not get a job at a university. This has been increasingly formalized, with applications requiring commitments to “diversity” and “social justice,” and requiring declarations as to how research and teaching would advance “diversity,” e.g. the University of California Davis.
The diversity that is meant to be enhanced and advanced is gender, racial, sexual practice, and ethnic diversity, but never diversity of opinion, which is forbidden. To ensure this, university administrations have hired multitudes of commissars, called “diversity and inclusion officers,” to police the speech of students and professors. Like the idea of “political correctness,” diversity commissars have been borrowed from the Soviet Union, although so far no one has dared complain about “cultural appropriation” from the USSR.
Deniers of the free speech crisis in higher education dismiss the handful of professors fired and the few dozen speakers disinvited and the scores of speakers shut down by mobs. There are several points to consider in assessing this alleged statistical refutation. One is the overwhelming number of invited visiting speakers who are leftist, leaving only a very few classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives to shut down, e.g. 95 percent leftist speakers at Brown University.
Second, the deniers never consider the demonstration effect on social control in the university community at large. Just as one driver being pulled over and receiving a speeding ticket will cause a thousand drivers to limit their speeding, so too a professor fired or passed over for promotion, grants, merit increases, etc., will inspire other professors to avoid heretical opinions and acts. After Professor Rick Mehta was fired from Acadia University for criticizing multiculturalism and the victim industry, how many Acadia professors are going to voice views not in conformity with “social justice” ideology? How many other professors are cowed into silence?
A student rejected and isolated for “racist” and “fascist” views will be a warning to hundreds of other students to watch what they say. My McGill students complained to me that they couldn’t say anything without being called nasty names, which made the atmosphere very oppressive. As well, one speaker being disinvited will warn students and professors to invite only acceptable speakers. When everyone has been sufficiently bullied into conformity, the numbers of incidents fall, not because everyone loves free speech, but because everyone has given up free speech in favor of the prevailing ideology or silence, and diversity of opinion has disappeared entirely.
Some of the responses of students in a McLaughlin national survey, done for Harvard, indicate a lack of free speech on campus. Over half of all students (53 percent) often “Have … felt intimidated in sharing … ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because they were different than those of … professors.” Similarly, 54 percent said that they often “felt intimidated in sharing … ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because they were different than those of … classmates or peers.”
At the same time, many students are quick to condemn the views of others. Fully 38 percent of students believe that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment, although the Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that the First Amendment does not recognize the category of “hate speech,” and that all speech is protected. It gets even more serious when we are told what counts as “hate speech”: “all lives matter” is denounced as racist hate speech; advocating “colorblind” policies is regarded as racist hate speech; and “merit” based decision-making is deemed to be white male supremacy.
By contrast, inventing false hate crimes, making false accusations of sexual assault, and mobs shouting down invited speakers are treated by university administrations as unpunishable, virtuous free speech.
Judgments about “hate speech” are not limited to opinion. Fully one-third of all students believe that “if someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.” And we have already seen what counts as “racially charged comments.”
Four in ten students (40 percent) believe “it is sometimes appropriate to shout down or disrupt a speaker on my campus.” And 59 percent, a strong majority, agree that “My college or university should forbid people from speaking on campus who have a history of engaging in hate speech.” Four out of ten humanities students believe that “If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.” Some humanity.
After hearing the specifics of student views of free speech, the students’ abstract support for the First Amendment, at an impressive 79 percent, rings hollow at best.
These student responses tend to support the view that colleges and universities are islands of repression in a sea of freedom. At least half of all Americans believe that. “Only 29% of Americans think most college administrators and professors are more interested in a free exchange of ideas. Fifty percent (50%) say instead that they are more interested in students agreeing with certain politically correct points of view. Twenty-one percent (21%) are undecided.”
The First Amendment was devised to restrict government control of speech, but it seems that speech is more at risk from the politically correct impositions of university students, professors, and administrations. The irony is that it is the federal government and the governments of states that are now the champions of free speech, producing executive orders and legislation to guarantee free speech in higher education. And while some college and university officials and the leftist commentariat have condemned President Trump’s executive order requiring free speech in universities, 73 percent of Americans support the executive order.