MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

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 studentactivism.net. 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.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Hyperbolical (wadair)||

    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.”

    Right. It's free speech if you agree, but hatespeech when you disagree. We've heard this before.

  • Swiss Servator||

    "Stop criticizing our calls for speech suppression...you fascist!"

  • WTF||

    Racist!

  • Quixote||

    By far the greatest threat to academic life is the scourge of dangerous trolls who have been using offensive "parody" tweets to stir up unwanted controversy and damage distinguished, and never self-made, reputations on our great university campuses. Let's hunt down some of those menacing criminals and put them in jail where they belong. There's a good model to follow nation-wide: see the documentation of America's leading criminal "satire" case at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • ||

    So telling someone to STFU is a robust, vigorous expression of free speech?

    Ok, then.

  • R C Dean||

    Basically, this is attempting to immunize the heckler's veto as an exercise of free speech.

    Nice try. Not buying it.

  • ||

    While I disagree with Johnston's support of the protestors' actual viewpoint, I think his argument is that yes this actually is a robust, vigorous expression of free speech. And I think he makes a fair point.

    Of course there have been many incidents this year where this activism has extended beyond free speech (i.e. ripping down fliers, physically assaulting journalists, etc) and Johnston studiously avoids that aspect because it doesn't fit his agenda. But yes telling a professor to STFU may be bratty, stupid and misguided but it's free speech nonetheless.

    @Dean: I may be wrong on this, but my understanding is that the heckler's veto regards gov't suppression of speech. Dumb kids throwing a tantrum about privilege is hardly the same thing.

  • Cyto||

    Yes, you are wrong. Censorship is government restriction of speech. The heckler's veto is when the loudmouth in the back keeps you from being heard.

    It can be codified into law or policy when the authorities legitimize and protect the heckler above the speaker, as in the case of many campus "hate speech" policies. But the point is that if you cannot protect the speaker and maintain order, you have in effect allowed the rudest, loudest and most biolent person in the room decide what speech is acceptable, negating free speech.

    So the dumb kids are the.hecklers, and if you fail to enforce some degree of public order, yo give them the heckler's veto.

  • sarcasmic||

    Tolerance means not tolerating intolerance.

  • UnCivilServant||

    I will not tolerate tolerence.

  • Atanarjuat||

  • Lee G||

    Just today? That's Democratic Underground levels of stupid.

  • sarcasmic||

    Because corporations and BOOOOOOSH!

  • Hyperbolical (wadair)||

    Yeah because socialism with capitalism ( non free market) IS Fascism.

  • WTF||

    They use words, but they don't actually know what they mean.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power"

    Benito Mussolini

  • straffinrun||

    That reeks of FB meme.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Reason's next caption contest should be ironic derp placed over a flag, because it is truly patriotic it is to be an ignorant pawn.

    Caption:
    Freedom isn't free! The government builds it by taking your labor and demanding obedience.

    *flag waves*

  • lap83||

    Do we need so many stars, stripes, and colors when children are starving? So decadent. How about just one star. Also red is a nice color.

  • R C Dean||

    But the star can't be white. So racist. Maybe yellow?

  • lap83||

    So a small child with a lemonade stand who doesn't submit to regulations or let Top Men redistribute her income is a fascist. It's a good thing liberals are there to look out for the little guy.

  • sarcasmic||

    Look. We need regulation to protect the people from ruthless businesses that will happily sell poison if it means they make a buck. This kid is a budding capitalist being pushed by her capitalist parents into making obscene profits, so it is entirely possible that her parents are instructing her to sell poison. So it is the duty of the government to send friendly police officers over there to either collect money to pay for government inspections, or shut the illegitimate business down. For the public good. If you disagree then you're an intolerant ideologue and not worth listening to.

  • Res ipsa loquitur||

    Finally someone gets it !

  • AlmightyJB||

    Lord of the Flies

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Censoring dissent is so much easier. And after twelve years of very firm instruction that finger guns are deadly threats to safety, a skull or the words "Call of Duty" on a tee shirt is violence, and a first grader kissing a girl on the playground deserves arrest, NOW we not only expect these kids to not merely know what their rights are, but vigorously defend them.

    Why? Its not as if their parents ever did.

  • kinghiram91||

    Of course they've decided to be forceful. It's typically their response when they are ignored. It's really the only way they know to get attention. Don't worry. You're going to see things their way, whether you want to or not.

  • Swiss Servator||

    OT: Have a nut punch: "were confronted by a combative subject resulting in the discharging of the officer's weapon."

    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/s.....7-16-46-28

  • WTF||

    It added the "female victim was accidentally struck."

    Jesus H. Christ.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Is that not what we call involuntary manslaughter?

  • straffinrun||

    When the cops do it you have to put a space after the s.

  • Swiss Servator||

    Oooh - nice one.

  • toolkien||

    Just copping Benny Hill (with a French accent)...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMId43b-fWA

  • sarcasmic||

    The target that forced the heroes to discharge their weapons is dead, and can't be charged with dodging the bullet that killed the neighbor.

  • Res ipsa loquitur||

    ...just wait and see on that one !

  • Cyto||

    Apparently they hit the guy causing the disturbance from a distance seven times. He had a baseball bat.

    It sounds like the family's version is that she opened the door for the police and they saw the disturbed guy coming into the other side of the room with a metal bat, do they opened fire immediately, killing her in the doorway.

    Because he had a weapon, this will be a good shoot. It wouldn't matter if he was using the bat to masturbate on the couch at the time, just so long as he had it.

  • WTF||

    Reason 642 why you never call the cops.

  • Sevo||

    ".....resulting in the discharging of the officer's weapon."

    The passive voice occurred.
    (BTW, don't piss off a weapon!)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Though I was not censored or silenced, the students’ antics did create a hostile environment for free expression.

    Is it the students' fault that she didn't think to bring her own safe space with her?

    Is anyone today looking to recent graduates for critical analyses or considered debate of anything? These few snowflakes will go on to work in NGO's or as activists for this cause or that and be marginalized into their own echo chambers and the rest of the graduates will move on. Maybe some of them will figure out how to shake down companies for funds but that shrinking niche is effectively filled. The only thing threatened by campus SJW's is the campuses themselves. I don't see it extending far beyond.

  • Lee G||

    They're headed to the EEOC, the NLRB, the EPA, the FCC, the FEC... the vast halls of the federal bureaucracy to wheedle and torment citizens until their utopia is achieved.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Those halls have been filled just fine before this, I think. I don't see the current uptick in leftist anti-speech making much of a change.

  • R C Dean||

    Over the long run? We have seen the success of the long march through the institutions by a relative handful of university-indoctrinated useful idiots. Why would the insertion of proggy safe-spacers into the institutions not be equally effective, over time?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You're saying the bureaucrats they will eventually be replacing aren't as bad as what's coming? Or pointing out this means an unbroken supply of them?

  • R C Dean||

    An unbroken supply of authoritarian proggies, with shifting agendas to facilitate a more totalitarian State.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I think that supply chain was never going to be interrupted, and I can't see what's being sown today will yield a crop of future bureaucracy any more poisonous than what we have now. But maybe I'm just being my usual optimistic self.

  • R C Dean||

    Libertarian moment, amirite?

  • MarkLastname||

    "I think that supply chain was never going to be interrupted, and I can't see what's being sown today will yield a crop of future bureaucracy any more poisonous than what we have now."
    Really? You can't imagine how it can get worse? Then you must lack imagination. As long as there are things that can offend these people that are legal, it can get worse. Some of these students are talking about making harsh words legally equivalent to assault. Yes, they are worse than the current generation of bureaucrats. Much worse.

  • Hyperbolical (wadair)||

    I hope you're right. The anti-war boomers did go on to oppose war in government when they got there...oh wait.

  • Swiss Servator||

    "Director of Diversity and Inclusion"

    You forgot the whole HR field out there in KKKorporashunz, man.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I can't imagine them being seen as employable in the private sector at the decision making level. Companies don't like troublemakers who freelance. The company line requires all toes on deck.

  • R C Dean||

    Companies don't like troublemakers who freelance.

    Companies also don't like high-profile, expensive fights, and will often choose to appease assholes both internal and external. Especially when those assholes have fellow travelers in positions of state power who will back them.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    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.

    This disingenuous turd seems to be consciously evading the fact that the shouting, accusations and demands are specifically in response to speech.

  • R C Dean||

    You missed it by a little, Bill.

    This disingenuous turd seems to be consciously evading the fact that the shouting, accusations and demands are specifically intended to silence their enemies.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Fair enough. The guy's argument comes down to "Objecting to our demand to dictate what you can and can't say is suppressing our free speech!". As far as I'm concerned, he's just the sort who deserves to have that little instrument of forced conformity turned on him.

  • jeffrey fein||

    I love these campus thought-police fascists.

    A couple of years from now they will leave the campus with its simpering and cowardly intellectualism -- as contrasted with bold and courageous intellectualism -- and they will enter the real world. When they try their politically correct extortion there, they will be in for a shock. The false sense of power they achieve in their protected little echo chamber of self-absorption will blow up in their faces in the real world. No one will be impressed by their petulant tantrums, and no respect will be forthcoming, and if they don't shut the fuck up and get with the program they will ride their obsession with "political correctness", "microaggressions", and "safe spaces" right into the social leper colony of loserville. To succeed in the real world, you have to cooperate, sometimes with people you like, but often with people you don't like and don't agree with. Keep complaining and bullying and insisting that people have to act and speak according to your rules, and you'll end up collecting aluminum cans from the trash and mumbling to yourself.

  • jeffrey fein||

    The prohibition against hate speech was cooked up by the Jews/Zionist/Israel-firsters in an attempt to shield Israel from criticism and accountability for its criminality. But the internet liberated speech from Zionist media control, so that now Israel is seen for what it is: a geopolitical crime-in-progress. The blinders are off, and justice is coming for the Zionist criminals and their supporters.

    Full disclosure: I am an American and a Jew, but I do not and I will not condone or be complicit in Jewish crime. Not sympathy for the Holocaust, not Neocon dominance of the executive, not AIPAC's the purchase of the US Govt with Jewish money can hold back justice forever.

  • Zunalter||

    Wow, you have really swallowed those talking points...

    Never go full retard.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    The first post was pretty spot on....in the second the tin foil hat was front and center.

  • MarkLastname||

    Perhaps it was a work of political satire, meant to suggest that people who agree with the first post subconsciously agree with the ideas of the second? Truly worthy of the New Yorker.

  • jeffrey fein||

    In 1917, the British Imperial elite and the World Zionist Organization joined forces to take Palestine from the people — 95% Arab — who had lived there for 70 generations, and give it to the Jews/Zionists. Taking what doesn’t belong to you has a name: it’s called stealing.

    This “plan” was then, in its embryonic stage, a crime of conspiracy, as the theft and murder in it’s execution is a crime today. A crime is still a crime, despite 90 years of control of the media. A crime is still a crime despite 90 years of impunity from prosecution, or 90 years of protection through propaganda. Just as no amount of time can transform a lie into the truth, so too, no amount of time can convert a crime into a legal act.

    The Zionist entity called Israel is nothing less than a geopolitical crime-in-progress. This is the truth that the Jews will never be able to “disappear”, and that the digital age and internet have finally set free.

    So when next you hear about Israel’s supposed “right to exist”, consider: what crime has a “right to exist”?, what criminal enterprise has a “right to exist”? Add to that: what criminal has a “right to self-defense”? What criminal has the right to commit violence in the furtherance of a crime? What criminal has the right to fight back against the lawful authority that arrives to halt the crime and arrest the criminals? (continued below)

  • jeffrey fein||

    Israel, the Zionists, their enablers, and their supporters are criminals: thieves and murderers on a global scale. In their criminality they have no “right to exist”, and in their criminality they have no “right to self-defense”.

    Yet, they do have rights. And I support those rights. They have the right to surrender to a competent authority. They have the right to a fair trial. If found guilty, they have the right to a proportionate penalty. And finally, once the offenders have “done their time”, they have the right to rejoin society and attempt once again a peaceful and cooperative existence.

    A time is approaching when the Zionist criminals will not be allowed to continue their crimes. A billion — with a “b” — and a half Muslims, outraged at the Zionist-directed war, against Palestinians in particular and all of Islam generally, and a world ever more unsympathetic with disproportionate Israeli brutality will not allow it. The Israeli post-holocaust get-out-of-jail-free card, dog-eared and threadbare from overuse, has expired. (continued somewhere. I couldn't get it to display in order)

  • jeffrey fein||

    As an American and a Jew I see the danger for Jews the world over. Jews support their fellow Jews. This ancient and enduring tribal loyalty now leads America's Jews into danger. They fail to see the likely consequences that arise from being seen as accomplices in Israeli crimes. A new holocaust is being built, the Jews are building it themselves, and the Zionist criminal project Israel is the foundation stone of that looming catastrophe.

    When the three hundred million non-Jewish Americans figure out that their country, its Congress, it’s executive, has been taken over by “the Jews” (the Zionists actually, but no one will bother with that distinction), as in ancient Egypt, and ancient Israel in the time of the Romans, and Spain and Portugal of early Roman Catholicism, or most recently during the era of the Nazis, resentment will rise, and time will have run out.

    Now is the time for Jews, American Jews in particular, to rise above tribal exceptionalism and criminal apologism and ***fix the problem*** before the problem “fixes” the Jews,…yet again.

    Good luck.

  • jeffrey fein||

    (part 4, last part)(Part one begins below, with "Fine.")

    Here are the crucial sources for the truth underlying the situation the world finds itself in today vis a vis Israel.
    The last three are long, scholarly, and frankly, a bit dry. However, the first, for obvious reasons, is quite entertaining.

    “Concerning the Jews” by Mark Twain
    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall.....-jews.html

    The Hidden History of Zionism
    http://www.marxists.org/histor.....st/hidden/

    Behind the Balfour Declaration
    Google the link yourself

    Benjamin Freedman
    Google the link yourself

  • jeffrey fein||

    Fine. Let's have full disclosure: Are you an American? Are you Jewish? Do you support Israel? What would justice for the Palistinians look like?

    Make your case. Here's mine,

    I’m an American and a Jew.

    For those of you thoroughly infected with the Judiasm-destroying poison of Zionism, here is the antidote to your Kool-aid dreams. Drink deeply and wake up to reality.

    We often hear the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” and along with it, “Israel’s right to self-defense.” Hear them endlessly, by propagandists who repeat them endlessly. But endless repetition does not make a thing true. The phantom “legitimacy” of endless repetition is just the fiction that remains after well executed propaganda has raped the truth.

    Yet the truth exists. And here it is: a fact-based, truth-based, ethics-based summary. (continued below)

  • jeffrey fein||

    My reply to you, Migrant Log Chipper, and Marklastname is scattered below. Reason has a 1500 character limit, so I had to break it into four parts, and couldn't get it to post in order, and then couldn't fix the jumble. So here is your guide:

    Part one starts with "Fine."
    Part two starts with "In 1917..."
    Part three starts with "Israel, the Zionists..."
    Part four starts with "As an American and a Jew..."
    and the last part, mistakenly labeled as "part 4" when it's actually part five starts with "(part four, last part)..."

    Oy!

  • amtar||

  • Fun at Parties||

    Twitter is banning/restricting free speech. Where is the article on that Reason?

    http://www.reuters.com/article.....PR20151230

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online