Now that the autumn semester is well underway, it is worth asking whether students have a chance to participate in free and open debate. The short answer is “No, they don’t.” They don’t have a chance to explore unpopular ideas and controversial opinions. They are “protected” from ideas that might make them uncomfortable. What’s being stifled here is more than speech. It’s their education and, with it, their preparation to live in a tolerant society, where fellow citizens hold different views.
As Hanna Holborn Gray, one of America’s finest university presidents, once observed: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom." She was absolutely right.
Unfortunately, today few universities follow Gray’s advice, and they bear a heavy responsibility for their failure. Promoting free discourse is central to their mission. It’s not only the best way to educate students, it is also the best way to encourage innovative research and to model serious engagement with differing views, a beleaguered value in today’s Western societies.
Students don’t need reminding how intolerant their campuses are. They already know. If they hold unpopular opinions, they keep their heads down. If they hold dominant views, they are all too eager to shame those who differ rather than debate them. Faculty and administrators are among the worst bullies, and they hold real power over students.
Whole departments display this intolerance. That’s especially true in the humanities and social sciences, but the infection has spread to the sciences. Increasingly, departments won’t hire or admit anyone who doesn’t swear allegiance to a specific political agenda. That’s not hypothetical or hyperbolic. Many now require applicants to submit written statements explaining in detail how they contribute to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI).
Passing that political litmus test is essential. Faculty hiring committees simply wouldn’t hire an applicant who responded, “My goal is to treat everyone equally, give preferential treatment to no one, and grade everyone solely according to the quality of their work, regardless of race, creed, or gender.” That statement is a quintessential American value, but declaring it publicly is career death. Better to genuflect to the gods of diversity, equity, and inclusion and appease the DEI bureaucrats, who are ubiquitous on every campus.
This poisonous atmosphere is not confined to a few departments or a few universities. It is pervasive. The Ivy League sets a dismal example, but it is hardly alone. Speech suppression, typically enforced in the name of “social justice” or “inclusion,” is now commonplace at almost all universities, big and small, public and private.
We Have Good Data on Campus Speech Suppression
The best data on this collapse of campus free speech has been compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. It is based on extensive surveys, not anecdotes. FIRE is politically neutral and was founded to defend all varieties of speech on campus.
Based on these recent surveys, FIRE ranked 203 universities on a wide range of speech-related issues. Only six universities achieved a “good” rating: the University of Chicago, Kansas State, Purdue, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, and Claremont McKenna. Some very prominent schools were ranked “poor” and one, Columbia University, was given the special tag of “abysmal.”
What about the Ivies and Stanford? None was rated “above average” on free speech and only two, Dartmouth and Stanford, achieved an “average” rating. From there, it’s all downhill. Cornell (#154), Princeton (#169) and Harvard (#170) were ranked “below average.” Yale, Penn, and Columbia scrape the bottom of the barrel.
The conclusion is disturbing. Free speech on campus is in trouble. Several of our country’s leading institutions have led this race to the bottom and are doing nothing to remedy their problems. Their failure spreads well beyond campus. When their students graduate, they carry these illiberal attitudes into society and the workplace. That’s exactly what they’ve done over the past decade.
Effective Ways To Encourage Free Speech on Campus
First, senior university leaders must act. Free speech can thrive on campus only if it has their wholehearted support. They should begin by issuing unambiguous statements endorsing basic principles of free speech and explaining their importance to education.
The key word is “unambiguous.” These statements must not include loopholes or weasel words, which are inevitably exploited by enemies of free speech. Noble statements of principle are useless if they suggest other social values or “hurt feelings” can offset freedom of expression. Gaps like these have been used repeatedly to suppress unpopular views. The only permissible limits are those laid out in the long line of First Amendment cases, such as prohibitions against physical threats.
Fuzzy principles and loopholes lead to bad practices. That’s the sad record on campus after campus. Universities never say they oppose free speech. What they say is that open discourse must be balanced against other priorities, such as “ensuring inclusion” and “overcoming inequality,” and that those values are often more important. If universities truly wish to promote free speech, they must be clear that other values, however worthy, cannot be used to quash divergent views and dissident opinions.
Second, good principles are not enough. They must be translated into good practice. That is typically the responsibility of the dean of students (or a similar office), which monitors student events and conducts disciplinary hearings. These administrators must not permit a “heckler’s veto.” Anyone who tries to shut down an event or class should face a disciplinary hearing and be given a fair opportunity to respond. If they are found guilty, the consequences should be serious, such as suspension or expulsion. Such punishment is appropriate, and it’s the only way to deter future disruptions. Unfortunately, universities rarely deal out more than gentle remonstrances, even when the violations are egregious.
Third, every entering student should understand the university’s core commitment to free speech and the consequences of violating it. Every letter of admission should say so, bluntly. “If you don’t intend to let others express their views at our university, go elsewhere.” The University of Chicago includes that admonition in its offers of admission – and has been sharply criticized by progressive faculty members for doing so. It also emphasizes that commitment in campus tours for prospective students. Columbia might try that.
Fourth, new students should be instructed in these values during orientation. Those sessions should emphasize the overarching principles, the practical rules, and the university’s determination to punish violations. These values are fundamental features of a liberal education and, indeed, of a liberal democracy. They are in peril and need to be rescued.
Fifth, drop all political litmus tests for hiring, admission, and promotion. We rightly prohibit questions about a person’s race, marital status, or sexual orientation. We should also prohibit questions about their political beliefs. That includes ending all efforts to make them explain their contribution to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Finally, university institutions should not adopt political positions or pressure students, staff, or faculty to do so. That means official bodies of the university, such as departments, programs, and the president’s office, should avoid taking institutional positions on these issues. Even if all faculty members in political science support Ukraine’s war against Russia, for example, the department itself should take no position. Even if the university president and provost support Black Lives Matter, the institution should remain silent. Why? So people in every department feel free to express their own opinions, without feeling pressure (intended or not) from the people who cut their paychecks.
These rules and principles have a serious educational rationale. They encourage students and faculty to explore new ideas, wrestle with difficult questions, confront the strongest counterarguments, and think hard about their own views and the rationale for them. The same openness should apply to research on controversial topics.
These values didn’t originate in universities, but they shouldn’t die there, either. They have been central to Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence for a millennium. Our courts are grounded in the idea that justice is best served by letting each side present its best case and rebut the other side’s as best they can. After that, an impartial jury can decide.
The same principle should apply to the search for truth on campus. Right now, it doesn’t. That censorship hurts our students and our society. It’s time our universities return to basic principles, encoded in the First Amendment, and put them into practice without fear or favor.