It should by now be obvious to most reasonable observers that left wing censorship has put higher education in a position that threatens to destroy our best universities. The recent outbursts at California – Berkeley and New York University, supposedly protests against invited speakers, are merely the latest evidence of the totalitarianism that has been allowed to metastasize across campuses all over the country, particularly at our most elite institutions. And these sensational manifestations of this radical element get the most coverage, but are not as bad as the insidious policies on many campuses designed to “protect” their students from any verbal content or speech that is deemed offensive, so that “trigger warnings” by faculty and students are encouraged and highly regulated “safe spaces” to shelter the offended students now proliferate the campuses.
Clearly, this is a complete perversion of higher education, education generally, the academic foundations that built Western Civilization, and the founding principles of this country as embodied in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. There is a reason that free speech is covered in the first of the bill of rights, because it is a foundation for all the rest of them.
We have now moved so far away from the free speech principle in, of all places, the institutions whose sole purpose is its preservation in pursuit of truth, that the U. S. Department of Education now includes in its definition of “harassment” any unwelcome verbal conduct or speech. It is not a big leap from here to conclude that if any speech that one doesn’t like is classified as harassment, there is nothing that is safe to say on a college campus!
It is long past time for trustees, alumni, and opinion leaders to stand up to and reverse this menace and, thankfully, several organizations are working hard at formulating plans that will do just that. Recently, the Goldwater Institute, in collaboration with Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, introduced a model for state legislation designed to safeguard freedom of speech at U. S. public university systems. These are directed at public universities because they are publicly funded and subject to the First Amendment, but are inspired by recent reports and policies adopted most prominently by Yale and the University of Chicago, the latter of which I commented on early last year (“Good for ACTA and the University of Chicago”).
The executive summary of the legislative recommendations highlight the following:
- Adopt official university policy that strongly affirms unhindered free expression and abolishes any existing restrictive speech codes.
- Prevent administrators from disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial.
- Require universities to establish a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who interferes with the free speech rights of others.
- Establish causes of action under state law for persons whose free speech rights have been improperly infringed by the university and allow them to recover court costs and attorneys fees.
- Reaffirm the principle that universities, at the institutional level, ought to remain neutral on issues of public policy controversy to encourage the widest range of opinion and dialogue.
- Ensure that students will be instructed of the official policy on free expression.
- Create a committee of the board of trustees to issue an annual report to state leaders and the public on the status of free speech on the campuses and the handling of free speech issues.
This is a good start and should be encouraged in every state, but it won’t be easy because many of the bad practices are well-entrenched and many administrators and left-leaning faculty will be resistant if not outright hostile to legislative mandates. Strong business and philanthropic leadership will be critical, not to mention alumni support groups, probably the most important constituency because it has a direct impact on funding. This crisis is real and the time for widespread action is now.