Don’t Be Fooled: There Is a Free-Speech Crisis
Polls show most students support free speech — all the more reason to protect it
Recent surveys of college students have cast doubt on the idea that they are largely opposed to free speech. But even if the data is right, what really matters about student opposition to free speech is not its prevalence but its zealousness. The danger of a sentiment depends not just on the number of its adherents but on the intensity of their belief. Racist ideology in America, for instance, has eroded among both Democrats and Republicans over the past few decades. But in that time it has also coalesced: More extreme strategies and tactics have begun to take hold among those attached to the waning view. So it is with opposition to free speech. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that during the
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Recent surveys of college students have cast doubt on the idea that they are largely opposed to free speech. But even if the data is right, what really matters about student opposition to free speech is not its prevalence but its zealousness. The danger of a sentiment depends not just on the number of its adherents but on the intensity of their belief. Racist ideology in America, for instance, has eroded among both Democrats and Republicans over the past few decades. But in that time it has also coalesced: More extreme strategies and tactics have begun to take hold among those attached to the waning view. So it is with opposition to free speech. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that during the protests at Yale in the fall of 2015, it was precisely a forum on free speech whose attendees were spat upon, or that during the same season’s protests at Missouri it was a student journalist who was “muscled” out of a protest.
Also important is the anti-speech movement’s support by powerful administrators. Just as the alt-right’s connections to the Trump administration render it a legitimate threat, so, too, do student ideologues’ allies in college administrations make small groups of hecklers far more powerful than they would otherwise be. Diversity officers and vice deans of equity and inclusion will explicitly support protesters. It was just such an administrator who cut off Christina Hoff Sommers during her talk at Lewis & Clark College last month. Invited by the Law School’s chapter of the conservative Federalist Society, Sommers was interrupted by protesters singing “No platform for fascists,” as the journalist Andy C. Ngo documented. Faculty members offer a different kind of support. Yale’s Jason Stanley and Cornell’s Kate Manne, for instance, wrote in 2015 that it was the student activists at Yale who truly believed in free speech, and not the conference attendees they spat upon.
In their demands and their rhetoric, protesting student groups have recently emphasized their links with supportive faculty and administrators. This is what the Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen called “a new family feeling on campus” — protests were outbursts of pain designed to induce more emotional warmth and caretaking. There is thus a symbiotic relationship between activist fervor and administrative bloat.
Bureaucratization and university corporatization are increasingly rendering the free-speech situation on campus more and more like the miserable state of expressive rights in the American workplace. The perilous position of adjunct teachers makes them highly unlikely to voice any kind of controversial view. The logic of branding makes professors and students alike de facto public-relations officers for a university. As the Chicago Tribune reported, when Northwestern University removed Alice Dreger’s guest-edited issue of its medical journal Atrium, Dreger says the administration explained its actions with “explicit reference to a brand.” Meanwhile, campus speech is judged for whether it is “aligned with our mission”; campus association, for whether it “uphold[s] the institution’s core values.”
At Vox, Matt Yglesias argues against the idea that there is a free-speech crisis on campus by emphasizing three aspects of the survey data. First, support for free speech is growing. Second, college students are unusually supportive of free speech compared with other age groups. Third, left-wing beliefs correlate with support for free speech rather than opposition to it: “Extreme liberals” express the most support for free speech, and “extreme conservatives” the least.
But how do these facts relate to the notion of crisis? The growth of support for free speech is likely a cause of the shared sense of concern about its suppression. This felt support is not victorious simply by existing; it must be translated into campus policy, which seems to be what writers like Yglesias oppose. Similarly, that college students are unusually supportive of free speech means precisely that in better respecting free expression, colleges will also better serve their students. But a group of left-wing and liberal writers have branded the concern for free speech a conservative one, despite the fact that such ardent free-speech advocates as Noam Chomsky argue that their position emerges from principle, not partisanship. The polls Yglesias discusses provide strong evidence that free-speech advocates are not the crypto-conservatives they’re often accused of being.
There is something very strange in the notion that polling evidence showing broad student support for free speech would mean there’s no free-speech crisis on campus. In fact, it suggests that the very real attacks on free speech are all the more scandalous insofar as they lack broad student support. Last month Reed College’s Lucía Martínez Valdivia spoke at Lafayette College’s Mill Series about her experience being confronted and outnumbered by student activists. Those activists wanted to topple Reed’s supposedly white-supremacist humanities survey course, in which Valdivia lectured in her capacity as a scholar of early-modern literature. At the Mill Series event, student support for free speech was a matter of debate. The faculty audience members who praised student protesters took the view that a silent majority of students, or at least a significant plurality, supported the student activists who disrupted Valdivia’s class. Valdivia, on the other hand, proceeded from the premise that most students support free speech. Shouldn’t the recent rash of experiences like hers strike writers like Yglesias as a crisis?
What nobody disputed was that a small cadre of activists — in this case, 20 students in a classroom of 400 — were able to wrest control of a class or event from a professor or speaker despite their group’s small size. Such temporary coups occur over and over again. That is the crisis. And if most students are uncomfortable with it, all the more reason to address it with the urgency and seriousness it merits.