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Free Speech is Under Attack

The Problem: Censorship in higher education

In March 2023, Kyle Duncan, a conservative federal judge, was invited to speak at Stanford Law School. He was met by hundreds of student protestors, who gathered outside the classroom where his talk was scheduled to brandish signs and hurl insults at Duncan. One student shouted: “We hope your daughters get raped!” Plastered around campus were photographs of the students who had invited him, branded with the words “You should be ASHAMED.” Duncan, unable to proceed amid the jeering, gave the floor to Tirien Steinbach, Stanford’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet, instead of reinforcing the importance of open discourse, she echoed the protestor’s complaints, saying that his “work has caused harm.” It “feels abhorrent” and “literally denies the humanity of people.” Duncan’s presence had put her in a tough spot, she said, because her job at Stanford “is to create a space of belonging for all people.”

Therein lies the most glaring contradiction of campus censorship: in an attempt to foster inclusion and punish discrimination, colleges have failed to provide space for alternative viewpoints. The “space of belonging” that Ms. Steinbach speaks of encompasses all races, genders, religions, and every other facet of identity one can think of, except for political beliefs. If this form of ideological intolerance is so pervasive at one of the nation’s top law schools, then the state of academic freedom in this nation is  clearly dire.

Even more disappointing than these silencing attempts is Ms. Steinbach’s response. After chastising Duncan, she reassured him that he was “absolutely welcome in this space,” because she and many others in the administration “do absolutely believe in free speech.” However, she continued, “I understand why people feel like the harm is so great that we might need to reconsider those policies, and luckily, they’re in a school where they can learn the advocacy skills to advocate for those changes.” Ms. Steinbach’s remarks not only understate the gravity of the situation—one can hardly call the students’ actions “advocacy,” after all—they also make clear how proud she is that Stanford students are learning to react in this reprehensible way.

Duncan later wrote of his upsetting experience in The Wall Street Journal. Stanford’s law school dean and university president formally issued an apology condemning the disruption to Duncan’s talk and instituting a mandatory half-day session for all law students on the topic of free expression. The associate dean has since left her position.

The incident at Stanford Law School represents just one of 27 attempts of on-campus silencing this year. All but one are conservative speakers, suggesting the vast majority of campus censorship has been reinforced by liberal groups.

This culture of intolerance extends into the classroom. A survey of 55,000 students from 254 colleges and universities found that 56 percent of students expressed at least some concern about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding something they have said or done. One in 5 students report self-censoring either “fairly often” or “very often” when discussing certain subjects for fear of how students,  professors, or school administration would respond. The dominant ideology of faculty and administration are progressive, so students feel an implicit pressure to conform to these views. The very real fear of public shaming prevents them from questioning mainstream opinions in the classroom.

This creates a self-reinforcing cycle of censorship. Such a stifling environment incentivizes faculty to strip their teaching materials of any potentially challenging or offensive content. One professor, writing under a pseudonym for Vox, spoke of the pervasive fear of offending students. One adjunct professor did not get his contract renewed after undergrads complained that his syllabi contained “offensive” texts by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His explanation—that these texts were meant to be slightly upsetting—only further angered the students and sealed his fate.

The overall effect: rigorous, important discussions are stifled. College campuses are devolving into increasingly concentrated echo chambers. The death of free speech looms.

The Cause: Age of polarization

In March 2021, Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, published a searing postmortem of the 2020 presidential elections. In his piece titled “America Is Exceptional in the Nature of Its Political Divide,” he observes that U.S. politics over the past few years suffers from extreme partisan hostility between Democrats and Republicans, who disagree on the economy, climate change, social justice, the pandemic, and a host of other issues. Supporters of Trump and Biden believe that their differences extend to more than just their political views: a month prior to the election, roughly 80 percent of voters from both sides indicated viewed their differences as fundamental disagreements on American values, and 90 percent of voters in both groups expressed concern that the other side’s victory would result in “lasting” damage to the nation.

Dimock agrees with many other scholars in his observation that America’s rigid bipartisan system “collapses a wide range of legitimate social and political debates into a singular battle line.” The many facets of an individual’s identity—such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion—have become “stacked” on top of people’s partisan identities. Thus, each debate—which usually engages a single aspect of someone’s identity—has coalesced into one massive battle. You belong on one side or the other; if someone feels a certain way about refugees, you will probably be able to guess their opinions on climate change, the pandemic, racial justice, abortion rights, and so on. There is simply no in-between, no space for heterogeneity of perspectives; it is thoroughly ideological. In their revealing analysis of American polarization, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue argue that “a powerful alignment of ideology, race, and religion renders America’s divisions unusually encompassing and profound.”

The dangers of identity politics are two-fold. First, focusing narrowly on identity directs our attention so far inward that none of our analyses ever translate into action. In this climate, Rebecca Cooper Reilly, a political philosopher at the University of Warwick writes, “particular experiences can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity.” For example, during a class discussion on child marriages in India, I hesitate to chime in because, as a non-Indian, I believe I lack the cultural authority to do so. No amount of objective, scholarly research will ever lend me this legitimacy simply because I don’t speak from experience. Individual narratives and emotions aren’t merely important touch points in modern identity politics; they constitute its entirety. Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, describes this phenomenon as the “politics of personal testimony.”

The second danger: identity politics engages such all-encompassing features of a person’s identity that the emotional discomfort of challenging viewpoints is often felt as a direct, personal assault. And the harm it causes must be remediated. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put it in their famous book, this has led to a “coddling of the American mind.”  Causing emotional distress to a student, even in the context of respectful and appropriate pedagogy, can now lead to significant negative consequences for an instructor. In a piece for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait quotes an anonymous professor who confesses that “she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma.” The same professor notes a palpable “environment of fear.”

Identity is indisputably important. We cannot have meaningful discussions about racism or feminism—or any other salient political debate—without recognizing the historical prejudices and systems that shape our realities today. Yet, as we have seen, focusing exclusively on identity is a destructive political approach.

The Solution

So, what can we do?

One constructive place to start is reshaping our political discourse: in evaluating an argument, we should return our focus to assessing its substance first and foremost. This ensures that external perspectives aren’t immediately discounted just because they aren’t derived from lived experience or cultural insight.

Debra Satz, faculty director of Stanford’s civic and liberal education program, identifies another culprit. She argues that this climate of policing stems not only from identity politics and increasing polarization, but a failure by higher education to provide students with a shared intellectual grounding in civic education.

In his book titled “What Universities Owe Democracy,” Ronald Daniels, president of John Hopkins University, argues that colleges and universities have decidedly failed to nurture the next generation of democratic citizens. Part of this can be attributed to the demise of the core curriculum: the civil rights movement in the 1960s had directed intense criticism at the Eurocentric and male slant of traditional “Western Civ” courses. Thus, by 2010, almost all selective colleges had abandoned the Western civics curriculum and established in its place a more flexible elective model, giving students the freedom to fulfill their civics requirement with a variety of courses. This introduced new voices and perspectives into classrooms but made it exceedingly difficult to maintain any coherent core curriculum. As a result, students rarely gain exposure to different opinions, and classrooms devolve into echo chambers.

Democracy is not an innate skill; the ability to reason and debate and tolerate must be cultivated and developed. Yet, if our academic institutions fail to provide us with the intellectual grounding and exposure to diverse viewpoints needed to nurture this civic impulse, the downfall of free speech seems imminent. It is imperative that we show students the many constructive ways one can engage with opposing opinions instead of censoring or canceling.

Featured image: University of Rochester

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