Discover more from The Eternally Radical Idea
Is the sudden discovery by campus leaders of political neutrality and freedom of speech for real?
In the wake of Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel, many colleges and universities seem to have suddenly rediscovered the value of free speech and academic freedom.
After a terrible free-speech track record over the last decade, schools like Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Florida have now issued statements defending free expression. They have even proposed political neutrality as advocated by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which notes that “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”
I, along with my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), applaud those statements and principles. But it’s hard to believe many of these universities will stand behind them. Unfortunately, these look more like positions of political convenience rather than principle.
Forgive my cynicism, but I’ve seen this all before. I started working at FIRE a couple of weeks after the September 11 attacks, and spent my first few years defending the more than a dozen college professors targeted for their 9/11-related speech. University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill was targeted for saying 9/11 victims were “little Eichmanns” who had it coming. University of New Mexico Professor Richard Berthold was disciplined for saying, “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” The speech was understandably unpopular, but it was protected — so we defended it.
These calls for punishment generally came from off-campus organizations, alumni, and donors of all political stripes. In response to this external threat, universities found the backbone — or more likely, the self-interest — to defend free speech and academic freedom, which led to a brief moment of renewed appreciation for free expression on campus. Realizing you could still run afoul of speech codes despite being on “the right side of history” will do that.
But this commitment proved to be short-lived, as schools soon returned to being embarrassingly permissive of censorship.
Over the last ten years the state of campus free speech, viewpoint diversity, and groupthink have all gotten much worse. As I detail in my new book, “The Canceling of the American Mind,” co-authored with Gen-Z journalist Rikki Schlott, more than 1,000 campaigns to get professors punished for their speech have occurred since 2013, and nearly 200 professors ended up being fired or forced out as a result.
In recent years, we’ve seen NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines being shouted down and chased through the hallways by angry students at San Francisco State University; violent protests disrupting a talk by conservative commentator Charlie Kirk at University of California, Davis; Dr. Carole Hooven targeted by administrators at Harvard for asserting that biological sex is real; and Ilya Shapiro suspended and investigated at Georgetown for a controversial tweet about President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee.
Those are just a few examples, and they don’t inspire much confidence in American universities’ sudden recommitment to free expression.
A good case in point is Harvard. Despite President Claudine Gay’s recent statements affirming the value of tolerance and free speech, the university scored dead last in FIRE’s 2024 campus free-speech ranking due to its speech codes, student opinion on the campus free speech climate, and its treatment of dissenting professors, students, and speakers. This means simple nods to free expression won’t be enough. Gay and other college administrators will have to walk the talk if they expect anyone to take them seriously.
Given the events on campus the last two weeks, it seems clear that some university leaders — as well as students and faculty — were too afraid to disagree with professor and student activists who take for granted that the pro-Palestinian position, and even the pro-Hamas position, is the only acceptable one. Given the number of vociferous past statements regarding issues like Black Lives Matter or the war in Ukraine, the sudden silence of university presidents and professors who may be sympathetic to Israel as well as the seeming certainty of student activists that everyone should agree with their anti-Israel opinions, is itself the product of years of cancel culture and fear.
Despite my skepticism, I would love to see universities commit to political neutrality, defend academic freedom, and promote freedom of speech. If they encouraged tolerance for differing viewpoints, listening to people, giving the benefit of the doubt, maintaining an open mind, and acknowledging the possibility of being wrong, it would represent a significant and welcome shift from the recent past — especially at elite colleges
While I appreciate and encourage their newfound emphasis on freedom of speech, it will take years for universities to demonstrate a genuine change, given their history of inconsistency. Given what I’ve seen in my two decades doing this work, I suspect that they might contradict themselves again in just a few months. I truly hope to be proven wrong.
This article originally ran in the Orange County Register on Sunday, October 22.