Betsy DeVos

In Constitution Day Speech, Betsy DeVos Says 'Government Muscle' Is Not the Answer to the Campus Free Speech Problem

"Solutions won't come from new laws from Washington, D.C., or from a speech police at the U.S. Department of Education."


Robby Soave

Today Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said free speech in education is necessary for the pursuit of objective truth during her Constitution Day remarks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The secretary had harsh criticisms for university administrators who are "complicit in creating or facilitating a culture that makes it easier for the heckler to win" on college campuses.

"As the purpose of learning is forgotten, ignored, or denied, we are inundated daily with stories of administrators and faculty manipulating marketplaces of ideas," said DeVos.

DeVos cited cases I've covered here at Reason as evidence of the problem. (She referenced one of the most egregious examples of campus censorship: Black Lives Matter shutting down an ACLU event at William & Mary last fall because "liberalism is white supremacy.")

According to DeVos, young people have less appreciation for the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment. She cited a Brookings Institution poll in which more than half of the surveyed students didn't think the Constitution protected certain views.

Even so, DeVos decisively opposed the idea that a new law, or a heavy-handed federal approach, would be the best way to fix what's wrong in schools.

"The way to remedy this threat to intellectual freedom on campuses is not accomplished with government muscle," she said. "A solution won't come from defunding an institution of learning or merely getting the words of a campus policy exactly right. Solutions won't come from new laws from Washington, D.C., or from a speech police at the U.S. Department of Education."

Instead, DeVos opined that the campus free speech problem is really a crisis of civic values. She commended the University of Chicago and called on more institutions to adopt—voluntarily—its free speech principles.

DeVos also took questions from the audience, which consisted mostly of K–12 students. These kids weren't afraid to criticize the secretary: One asked rather pointedly about her qualifications, and DeVos was more than happy to respond. Good on DeVos for not expecting any kind of emotional safe space when she delivered her remarks, and good on the kids for taking the opportunity to grill the secretary. This is the kind of meaningful debate that so many of us would like to see more of on college campuses, even when the speaker is Charles Murray or Heather MacDonald or Ben Shapiro or someone else left finds intolerable.

DeVos's impulses on campus free speech and Title IX issues continue to be solid. She has addressed the former problem without proscribing a government cure that would be worse than the disease, and she has charted a reasonably restrained course for addressing the latter.

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  1. She cited a Brookings Institution poll in which more than half of the surveyed students didn’t think the Constitution protected certain views.

    But hasn’t this always been the case, at least when it came to “certain views”?

    There was a time when a substantial number of people didn’t think the Constitution protected advocacy of communism, or abolitionism.

    I mean, yeah it’s not great when people want to use the crisis du jour to start limiting people’s liberties, but I don’t think it is all that modern of a problem.

    The First Amendment is really a prohibition on Congress expressing the wishes of the majority in these types of cases, and so limits the power of the mob. Which is good.

    1. The mob disagrees.

      1. Which is why we have a First Amendment.

        1. Which the mob is ignoring.

        2. Pssst…the heckler’s veto is not protected by the First Amendment

          1. Yep, freedom of assembly includes the right to not assemble with someone. Every group is allowed to devise a mechanism for expelling someone.

            1. Depends whose property it’s on, or who paid to rent it as to whether they must put up with heclers…

    2. No, it was not “always” the case. While there were times when other “certain views” were under attack, academia actually led the charge against those restrictions.

      And that’s the real point – not that disfavored views have always been disfavored – but that students (and faculty) used to be the champions of free speech but clearly are no longer.

      1. Funny that. People tend to change their minds on these types of things once they are in power.

  2. Wrong, if the government has any place at all, it is to protect our rights from those who would take them away. Absolutely they should come down hard on the tyrants in the universities.

    1. So, it follows that the government has no place at all.

  3. One asked rather pointedly about her qualifications, and DeVos was more than happy to respond.

    Someone was paying attention in his Talking Points 101 class, but maybe not his critical thinking class. “A government that would put someone so unqualified to head an agency is a government I want finding solutions to my problems!”

    1. Step 1: Convince the public that the government must run every essential activity.

      Step 2: Convince the public that we’re all gonna die if the “wrong” party runs these essential activities.

    2. “Unqualified” doesn’t mean much more than “I don’t agree with them” when it comes to politics.

  4. I hope they do pass it. The inevitable train wreck might (*might*) be a salutary lesson. And if (likely) not, then they will be emboldened to pass an even worse train wreck.

    Cory Doctorow linked to an interesting dystopia called All Rights Reserved, where the copyright barons have run amuck and everything you say or write or communicate in any fashion (shrugs, hand gestures, mouthing words) is subject to royalties. The usual failings of dystopian novels, but it’s fun and a good read. The only preaching comes way at the end in a victory speech.

    1. Fuck wrong tab.

  5. I believe Bill Buckley’s comment on using the phone book rather than the Harvard faculty list becomes more and more apt every day.

  6. The way to remedy this threat to intellectual freedom on campuses is not accomplished with government muscle

    A little university muscle on those who prevent free speech would do wonders. Picket the venue, hold counter rallies, fine. But once you barge in and interrupt the speaker, or block the entrance, then you’ve crossed the line, and a day in the virtual Birmingham jail would do you good.

    1. Really, things like this are what pillories are great for. If you aren’t willing to suffer half an hour of people laughing at you and throwing rotten tomatoes and eggs at you, then you don’t believe in your cause enough for me to have anything but contempt.

  7. Government Muscle is the answer to every problem. It’s like she doesn’t even NPR.

  8. Free speech on America’s advanced re-education camps?
    Stalin had it right when he said, “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”

    …and of course the proggies’ favorite quote from their hero, Stalin, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”

    I’m sure all the proggies on this site are shedding tears of joy when I quote their hero.

    1. The retort, of course, is that proggies don’t know how a toilet works, and sooner or later they will need the ideas of people who do. Marx was relatively poplar in the countries where they knew Darwin’s theories and thought eliminating opposition permanently would bring about progress. Nations that understood Pasteur’s work understood what they had to loose if the communists won.

  9. Uhh…no. New laws won’t fix this. Rescinding old ones might though.

    Sadly, since that won’t happen we can look forward to more sex police. Only really for the hetero’s though, you understand. Breeders are the only type that can be icky.

    1. And the homos are so degenerate and depraved as to be effectively un-rapeable.

    2. The future is now. Did you ever try advocating for more home construction for family’s with kids in a progressive stronghold? The opposition will complain about the impact on the school district if they are limousine liberals in the suburbs and complain about “luxury condos” if they are low income urbanites.

  10. because “liberalism is white supremacy.”

    To be fair, they were quoting one of President Wilson’s State of the Union Addresses. 😉

  11. If the problem is on college campuses and it does exist, why was the Secretary speaking to K–12 students? They might ask some valid questions but if you are going to defend against attacks on free speech on campus shouldn’t she have gone to a college to make her point? Her appearance may have sparked controversy but isn’t that what this whole issue was about? It”s as if she decided to fight censorship by attending a meeting of ACLU trainees. Who was there to challenge her position, worthy though it might be?

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