College President Vs Free Speech (2019 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

Heretical speech is routinely and forcibly attacked on the college and university campus. An invited conservative or libertarian speaker is shouted down, harassed, prevented from communicating, and even physically threatened by enraged leftist students (and their faculty mentor accomplices) who scream that they feel “unsafe” and that “social justice” requires that “bad-speak” be forbidden.

Reactions to these events are mixed. Many mainstream leftists might feel uncomfortable by the prospect of violence, but they are pleased that the academy is being cleansed of views that contradict their core beliefs. Conservatives and libertarians are likely to complain and point out that the university is supposed to have a free speech environment which permits the expression of all types of views (but they are primarily concerned with conservative and libertarian content).

A naive outside observer might expect the intolerance to be symmetrical. For every right-of-center speaker that is hounded off campus by woke progressives, there should be a leftist advocate who is menaced by right-wing students and faculty. But this does not occur. One interpretation is that conservatives and libertarians have a more charitable attitude toward their opposition. More realistically, academics and students on the right constitute a tiny minority in the higher education universe. In the most prestigious schools you have to search carefully to find any of them. The academic world is a place where non-leftists have learned that it is dangerous to reveal themselves.

For those that value personal liberty this is severely troubling. The philosophy of freedom can only prevail through persuasion. It is vital that young people, especially those in college, be exposed to the arguments that demonstrate that individualism, personal responsibility, and limited government are valuable and essential for human flourishing. The leftist academic elite has stifled – and nearly shut out – this line of thought.

And, significantly, the situation is also troubling to astute leftists. They see that conservatives (who constitute a large proportion of voters) are organizing and demanding that colleges and universities be more tolerant of their views and refrain from shutting out their speakers.

Michael S Roth, President of Wesleyan University, has proposed a policy that he calculates will preserve the dominance of leftism on the campus while mollifying conservative and libertarian critics. Recently he published a column (probably reflective of his book) where he addresses the issue of free speech in colleges and universities. The essence of his message is that these institutions should remain citadels of progressive leftist doctrine. He asserts that it is the duty of administrators to curate the intellectual content that is permitted on campus. However, Dr Roth believes that some ideas – different from the orthodox leftist narrative – should be expressed and discussed in places of higher learning.

When you read his article you will see that he is personally committed to furthering the leftist cause. Dr Roth dismisses attempts by outsiders to bring more speakers on campus with views inimical to the left as “a well-funded effort by conservative political organizations.” Here he is signaling to readers his progressive credentials. You can be sure he is not not disturbed when “well-funded” left-of-center operatives push their agenda.

The progressive rationale for curtailing free speech is that the wrong sort of ideas cause tangible harm to those who are officially members of oppressed groups. Keep in mind that “oppressed groups” (defined by the leftist elite) deserve full sympathy while “oppressors” have earned scorn and should be given no consideration. Dr Roth writes, “real harm to real people results when racism and sexism amplify hateful speech.” And note well that in the twenty-first century the definition of racism and sexism among leftists has been expanded to include any actions or thoughts that a progressive does not like. Also you can be certain that “real harm to real people” does not apply if the victim belongs to one of the wrong groups. How disturbed would mainstream college administrators be if white Christian conservatives were offended and felt hurt by a communist speaker on campus?

Consistent with his leftist philosophy, Dr Roth has little sympathy for free markets – either inside or outside of the academic world. He writes that “the classroom has never been an unregulated market” and that “there are judgments to be made by those with qualifications about what counts as legitimate.” With respect to schools he is correct. Colleges and universities cannot open their doors to all speakers who want to lecture. There is limited space and limited time slots on campus. Someone has to judge who will be allowed to present ideas. This is a different situation from internet venues where the capacity for more content can be expanded indefinitely.

And then Dr Roth makes an interesting suggestion. He proposes deliberately making room for opposing voices – as long as those voices are screened by wise college administrators. Dr Roth writes, “we need an affirmative action program to bring thoughtful conservative and religious scholars to institutions that pride themselves on research and selectivity. Without proactive leadership, we’ll wind up with only the occasional outrageous right-wing pseudo-scholar coming to campus to incite outraged reactions from students, followed by puffed-up indignation from opinion writers.”

Consider the implications of “affirmative action” for conservatives (and probably libertarians as well). Right off the bat, affirmative action should be recognized as a traditional leftist program that discounts individual merit and touts group membership. Advocates of liberty should be suspicious. How do you expect it would work in practice? Woke college administrators would carefully select representatives from “the other side” that are least likely to disturb leftist hegemony. Speakers can be found who are labeled “conservatives” but really agree with most leftist positions. This is how The New York Times rounds out its editorial staff. Alternatively, outsiders with views at odds with mainstream academia could be recruited who have the the weakest, easiest-to-refute arguments. The objective is to demonstrate that the opposition is really not very smart. Note that this tactic is practiced on television talk shows hosted by leftist commentators. My reaction to Dr Roth’s offer of affirmative action is thanks, but no thanks.

What is the most promising path for those who value liberty and want to reach college students? From the schools all that is needed is a guarantee that invited speakers will not be abused or endangered. That means no threats or physical disruptions. Delicate easily-offended leftist students should be told if they feel “unsafe” by the presence of a speaker they should avoid attending the event. Conservative and libertarian speakers will continue to be a small minority, and it will take a long time for their presence to become common.

The most promising opportunity for explaining the virtues of freedom to students is to reach them on the web – outside the school setting. The internet is a wide-open medium, and the academic establishment does not have the power to control its content (so far). Advocates for liberty have an interesting challenge, and they have a tool that can be effective.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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