The campus free speech crisis deniers rebutted

Recently, Andrew Hartman, an Illinois State professor, wrote an article in the Washington Post claiming there is no campus free speech crisis. Hartman’s analysis was seriously flawed, as I tried to demonstrate.

Hartman isn’t the only one pushing back against the view that a campus free speech crisis exists. The same claim has recently been made by Matthew Yglesias, who declares that “everything we think about the political correctness debate is wrong,” and Jeffrey Sachs, another professor given space by the Washington Post to opine on the subject.

The weaknesses of their arguments has been exposed by Cathy Young, Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt, Robby Soave, Katie Herzog, and Stanley Kurtz. I recommend all of the above-mentioned columns — pro and con — for your consideration.

Those who deny that there’s a campus free speech crisis rely on three polls — a survey by FIRE, a survey by the Knight Foundation, and the the General Social Survey (GSS) which for 50 years has asked Americans about their tolerance for offensive speech. I discussed the FIRE poll in my article.

The Knight Foundation poll found that “students believed First Amendment freedoms were secure, and they generally preferred that campuses be open environments that encourage a wide range of expression.” Great. But Katie Herzog shows that behind these sunny sentiments lurk darkly oppressive ones:

When asked whether free expression or diversity and inclusion is more important, [students] tilt toward saying diversity and inclusion are. Students are as likely to favor campus speech codes as to oppose them, and they overwhelmingly favor free speech zones on campus. Students do not believe the U.S. Constitution should protect hate speech, and they continue to support campus policies that restrict both hate speech and wearing stereotypical costumes.

In addition, nearly two-thirds of students do not believe the Constitution should protect hate speech. But the Constitution does. Thus, the vast majority of college students don’t believe in a core element of the constitutional protection of free speech.

It should be obvious that the “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment college students wish to carve out can be used to block speech they strongly disagree with. As Herzog reminds us, it has been so used on campus.

Stevens and Haidt take a deep dive into the GSS. They show that “when the analysis is properly focused–on iGen college students since 2015, rather than on Millennials at large over the last ten years–the GSS does in fact show a recent downturn in support for controversial speakers.” In addition, they argue, the same trend can be observed in the much larger survey of college students by the Knight Foundation.

Soave points to a Cato Institute poll that found half of the country’s college students (51 percent) believe disrespectful people should be stripped of their free speech rights and 60 percent believe that hate speech is the equivalent of violence.

Soave also notes that at Arcadia College in Nova Scotia, where the sanguine professor Sachs teaches, an associate professor of psychology, Rick Mehta, is under investigation for voicing conservative opinions in his classroom. His department head complained that some of his students refuse to come to class because the experience of listening to him talk about why the gender wage gap is exaggerated produces too much anxiety. A professor of social work says that Mehta’s opinion “does border on hate speech.”

Kurtz argues that the current campus free-speech crisis grows out of a de facto alliance between radical students, leftist professors, and sympathetic or craven administrators. Thus, even if the results of student surveys were less appalling on matters of free speech, the crisis would likely exist. It doesn’t take many students to shout down a speaker, for example, if professors and administrators countenance their actions.

Kurtz goes on to examine the free speech picture at one school, Clemson University. Clemson isn’t an Ivy League school, nor is it located in liberal America. Rather, it’s a public campus with proportionally more centrist and conservative students than the elite coastal schools. As Kurtz puts it, “if the campus free-speech crisis is alive at Clemson, it’s likely far more widely spread.”

Kurtz shows that the campus free speech crisis is indeed alive at Clemson. It has experienced a raft of free-speech troubles, from restrictive codes and zones to speech suppression.

The faculty’s role has been decisive and truly frightening. 110 faculty members publicly backed an unconstitutional student demand for speech suppression, while only three dared contradict it. Under pressure of an active minority of students and an illiberal faculty, cowardly administrators suppressed the truth about an alleged bias incident and adopted a diversity-education program that itself made a hash of free speech.

As Kurtz concludes:

Opinion polls showing majority support for free speech by Clemson’s student body wouldn’t gainsay the damage done by an illiberal alliance between faculty, administrators, and part of the student body. Nor would the presence of politically disengaged students change the fact that the freedom of those who care to voice their opinions is endangered. . . .

“Crisis” is defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” and the “turning point of a disease when an important change takes place.” The condition of free speech at Clemson qualifies as a crisis on both counts. Between administrative weakness and the faculty’s illiberal turn, free speech will not be resuscitated at Clemson in the absence of stronger medicine.

Leftists have a strong interest in an academic environment that’s hostile to conservatives. This, I think, explains their flawed attempts to dismiss the campus free speech crisis. The inroads Stanley Kurtz and the Goldwater Institute have made in convincing state legislators to respond to the very real campus free speech crisis presumably are playing a part, as well.