No campus free speech problem? Really?

Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University, argues that there is no campus free speech problem. He claims that college campuses are more tolerant than ever.

The latter claim may be true if you’re a transgender illegal immigrant advocating communism. But what is Hartman’s evidence that conservatives don’t have a problem speaking freely and hearing others express conservative views on campus?

He presents precious little. He notes that student protests are nothing new. But student protests aren’t the issue. The free speech problem for conservatives doesn’t exist because left-wing students protest. It exists because, among other affronts, conservative speakers often aren’t welcome on campus and speech codes restrict the free speech rights of conservative students.

When I was at Dartmouth in the late 1960s, we protested the Vietnam War. We even took over the administration building. But it never occurred to us to storm the library to berate, much less assault, students who didn’t join our protest. Yet that’s what happened a few years ago in Hanover during the era Hartman deems more tolerant than ever.

Hartman also notes that there was alarm over lack college speech codes in the early 1990s. He neglects to explain how this shows there is no free speech problem today.

The alarm in the 1990s was justified. What happened then was a precursor of what’s happening now.

However, the 1990s did not feature shouting down speakers or physically assaulting them, at least not to the extent we see on campuses today. Hartman makes no attempt to demonstrate otherwise.

When he finally gets around to presenting evidence, Hartman relies on a survey by FIRE in which, he says, “the vast majority of students, including conservatives, feel relatively uninhibited in expressing their views.” (Emphasis added)

The word “relatively” is doing a lot of work for Hartman. The FIRE poll found that more than half of students (54%) have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college. Almost half (44%) have stopped themselves from sharing an opinion on campus outside of the classroom.

Among the listed reasons for not expressing themselves outside of the classroom, 39% selected that they thought they might offend someone, 38% selected that they self-censored because another person might judge them, 34% because they might hurt someone’s feelings, and 29% because they thought that their idea might be politically incorrect. You can bet that it is conservative students, overwhelmingly, who have self-censored for these reasons.

Hartman also relies on the finding that only 2% of those surveyed by FIRE say they themselves would participate in actions that would prevent a guest speaker event from taking place. Only 1% say they would use violence to disrupt an event.

But a survey of students conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and University of California at Los Angeles professor, found that one-fifth of undergrads say it’s acceptable to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.” As for silencing speakers through shouting over them, half of the students surveyed think this is okay.

These results were reported in the Washington Post. Catherine Rampell, a liberal columnist, found them “chilling.”

Was Hartman not aware of them? Or did he exclude them from discussion because they don’t support his thesis that “the kids are all right”?

Whatever the percentage of students who say they would participate in a shout-down, these infringements on free speech occur far too frequently. Conservative speakers are “disinvited” far too frequently. Conservative students don’t express their opinions for fear of being deemed politically incorrect far too frequently.

That’s why liberals like Jonathan Chait and Catherine Rampell, along with the non-conservative David Brooks, have expressed alarm. Hartman comes nowhere close to showing their alarm is unjustified.

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