Campus Free Speech

Was 2015 a Bad Year for Campus Free Speech? Let's Ask the Experts

Expect more challenges to free expression in the coming year


Are easily-offended students and their allies within the university bureaucracy ushering in a new era of censorship on American college campuses? Even President Obama is worried that excessive political correctness is stifling legitimate debate at universities.

Still, it's hard to say whether the situation on campuses is truly dire, or even getting worse. In the past year, I've written about dozens of egregious free speech violations—but a mere collection of anecdotes does not necessarily indicate a trend. Indeed, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently turned up some good news: the percentage of universities maintaining unconstitutional speech codes hit a 16-year-low in 2015.

On the other hand, recent surveys of student and faculty attitudes toward free expression and the state of affairs on campus suggest that some members of the campus community are eager to squelch speech that offends them.

Was 2015 actually a bad year for campus free speech? I asked four higher education experts to share their thoughts on the current state of campus debate, and to predict what challenges might arise in 2016. Here are their responses.

Christina Hoff Sommers:

"I have been lecturing on campuses for more than twenty years. I have never seen anything like what is happening today. In the past, students who disagreed with my critique of hardline feminism would either ignore my talks or come to spar and debate.  Today they organize boycotts. Why? Because I might give them PTSD.

When I spoke at Oberlin and Georgetown last spring, campus activists organized safe spaces where students could flee if they were panic-stricken by my arguments.  Angry flyers were pasted on the walls: "Free speech does not mean hate speech." There was yelling and hooting throughout my talk.  When a kindly philosophy professor stood up and urged students to be civil, he was jeered and mocked, and someone in the crowd angrily ordered him to "Sit down." After my lecture, two police women escorted me out of the room, hurriedly put me in a van, and drove me off campus to a restaurant where I was meeting College Libertarians and Republicans for dinner. Though I was not censored or silenced, the students' antics did create a hostile environment for free expression. Such antics—and worse—are now common on campuses throughout the country.

Some will argue that elite enclaves like Oberlin and Georgetown matter little to real world freedoms. Who cares, they say, if some students act out in bizarre ways? But the new zealotry is hardly confined to these two campuses. Nor is it just students. College deans, urged on by student safe-spacers, risk-averse attorneys, and officials in the Education Department, have formed an axis of repression.  Together, they are quietly amending the Constitution and creating their own definition of harassment. They are replacing the First Amendment with their own little codes and guidelines. Freedom of expression is being eclipsed by the right not to be made uncomfortable. Due process is treated as a barrier to justice rather than its essence. Armies of gender apparatchiks are monitoring and policing speech, ideas, humor, sexuality—even clapping. Orwell's Junior Anti-Sex League has set up shop right in our midst.

The safe-space scourge may not be the worst threat to freedom in American history—but the threat is real and appears to be intensifying. Today's millennials are going to have to decide: Will they be the generation that stands by helplessly—or even applauds—as basic freedoms are stripped away? My best guess is that they will eventually rally and defend their liberties. I already see signs of resistance. I just hope this resistance forms quickly. I am scheduled to speak at Berkeley in February."

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books and hosts a video blog, The Factual Feminist.

Angus Johnston:

"My biggest free-speech concern on today's campus has to do with attacks on student activists' speech rights. Sometimes those attacks are institutional, as when students at Loyola University Chicago were brought up on disciplinary charges for holding an unapproved #BlackLivesMatter rally, or as in Missouri, where state legislators are considering a bill that would revoke student athletes' scholarships if they so much as expressed support for a team strike.

But the more insidious attacks are the rhetorical ones, in which students' advocacy of their own views is condemned as censorship of others. It is not censorship, or silencing, or totalitarianism, to shout at a professor, or to call a fellow student racist, or to demand that a university president resign. It's speech—robust, vigorous speech that falls squarely within the best traditions of political dissent and student protest. That so many self-proclaimed free speech advocates fail to understand that is deeply disappointing."

Angus Johnston is a professor of history at the City University of New York. He maintains the website To hear more from him on this subject, read his recent piece in Rolling Stone, "There's No College P.C. Crisis: In Defense of Student Protesters."

Samantha Harris:

"On the one hand, the most egregious restrictions on speech (the ones that FIRE calls red-light codes) are down again this year, and have been steadily declining for the past 8 years. On the other hand, most universities still do maintain speech codes—what FIRE calls "yellow light" policies, while less clearly restrictive than red light policies, are still in most cases unconstitutional restrictions on student and faculty expression. 

Beyond that, policies that are not necessarily restrictive on their face can still be applied in a restrictive way, which is another problem we see happening on campus. Particularly with the federal government's unprecedented intervention into universities' handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment claims, we have seen too many universities investigating and even punishing clearly protected speech—including the germane speech of faculty in the classroom—under the guise of addressing harassment.

With regard to student attitudes about speech, it is also a mixed bag. On the one hand, this fall has brought a great display of students across the country exercising their right to protest and demonstrate. And yet, too many of these same protesters have been issuing demands that, if met, would undermine others' right to free speech (such as the Amherst protesters' demand that the college punish students who posted "All Lives Matter" posters). Anecdotally, it does feel as though FIRE encounters more demands for censorship coming from students themselves than we did when I first started at FIRE 10 years ago, when censorship seemed to be driven more by administrators."

Samantha Harris is the director of speech code research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


Jane S. Shaw:

"On balance, I think that free speech is coming back because of the publicity given to the efforts to quell it. We can be grateful to FIRE, The College Fix, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education, and others.

As my colleague George Leef has pointed out, public universities come under the aegis of the First Amendment and when they violate it, they don't have a leg to stand on. Private universities don't have to meet that standard (they are more like private businesses in control of what goes on within their walls), but bad publicity does hurt their reputations.

Unfortunately, most students 18 to 22-years-old are not very thoughtful about free speech. The term "free speech" sounds good, "hate speech" sounds bad, and most students don't understand how prohibiting something bad can undermine something good. Add to that the pervasive effort to protect selected "victims" and throw in some weak-willed administrators, and you have the situation that's been in the news in recent days. 

But most faculty recognize the importance of free speech; along with the publicity, they will help campuses calm down and restore what freedom has been lost. (I'm not as confident of the administrators, however.)

Jane S. Shaw is a board member and former president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.