Commentary

The New Censorship on Campus

June 05, 2017

Tony Overman, The Olympian via AP Images
Students leave Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., last week after a threat prompted officials to evacuate the campus.

The turmoil at Evergreen State College — where a professor is facing accusations of racism and demands for his resignation because he said white students should not be asked to leave campus for a day — is only the most recent example of free-speech controversies roiling colleges across the country.

It is an illusion for minority groups to believe that they can censor the speech of others today without having their own expression muzzled tomorrow.

Free speech faces many challenges at colleges and universities these days, but none greater than the growing skepticism of some students — especially those who feel particularly marginalized and disempowered in our society. Vocal elements of these groups increasingly question what the Supreme Court has celebrated as the country’s profound commitment to "uninhibited, robust and wide-open" public discourse.

Campaigns led by these students to silence and to exclude from their campuses speakers whose views they find offensive and odious has triggered a serious politicization of the principle of free speech, with "progressive" and minority students tending to condemn freedom of speech, and political conservatives suddenly waving the flag of free expression. This politicization of a fundamental right would be bad enough if it were to stay on campuses, but, as Evergreen State demonstrates, controversies at higher-education institutions are driving the polarization of free speech nationwide. It also poses a special danger to the interests of those very same minority students because, in the long run, it is they who most need the vibrant protection of freedom of speech as an essential and powerful weapon in our continuing struggle for equality.

It was not always this way. The civil-rights movement of the 1960s, for example, energetically embraced the principle of free speech. In April 1968 in Memphis, in the last speech he gave before he was murdered, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided a ringing endorsement of the central importance of the First Amendment for the civil-rights movement, when he declared that the freedom of speech is a central guarantee of "the greatness of America."

In a similar vein, the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement were both made possible by the ability of courageous advocates for equality to challenge the accepted wisdom, to advance new ideas and understandings, and to shift the expectations and beliefs of countless Americans. Without a fierce commitment to freedom of speech, such progress would never have been possible.

Yet today, minority students and their supporters too often see free speech as the enemy. It is certainly understandable that they see certain speakers and certain ideas as offensive and odious. It is certainly understandable that they would be tempted to want to silence speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna, and Charles Murray at Middlebury.

But it is also understandable that believers in creationism would want to silence supporters of Darwin in the 19th century, that supporters of the United States’ entry into World War I would want to silence critics of the war and the draft, that supporters of the belief that "a woman’s place is in the home" would want to silence supporters of the women’s-rights movement, and that supporters of the view that homosexuality is sinful and immoral would want to silence supporters of the gay-rights movement.

Wanting to censor those whose views one finds odious and offensive is understandable. Actually silencing them is dangerous, though, because censorship is a two-way street. It is an illusion for minority groups to believe that they can censor the speech of others today without having their own expression muzzled tomorrow.

When students last year were asked in a Gallup survey sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute if they thought colleges and universities should restrict the expression of "political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups," 24 percent of white respondents and 41 percent of African-American respondents said "yes." But as Dr. King understood, a fierce commitment to freedom of speech is most important to those who lack political power.

Even from a short-term perspective, efforts by minority groups to censor the expression of offensive and odious speech often backfires, because it makes those they oppose into ever-more famous martyrs, giving them larger audiences and growing book sales. Little has helped the brand of the likes of Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos more than their exclusion from speaking on college campuses.

Although censoring others may appear to be a courageous sign of strength, it is actually an indication of weakness. Those who resort to censorship do so in no small part because they lack confidence that they can compete effectively with the ideas of their opposition. Allowing others to speak and then challenging them in a forthright and open manner with more persuasive ideas is the way to win in the long-term. It was for this reason that Dr. King in the speech later known as "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop" said, "We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody." Rather, he said, "we are going on."

As President Barack Obama observed in a commencement address at Howard University last spring, No matter how much you might disagree with certain speakers, "don’t try to shut them down. … Let them talk, … but have the confidence to challenge them ... If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. … Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism" and stupidity "at every stage of your life."

It is through debate, argument, and courage — not censorship — that truth will win out.

Jeffrey Herbst, a former president of Colgate University, is president and chief executive officer of the Newseum. Geoffrey R. Stone is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago.