Free Speech Woes

Abby Thernstrom famously called our colleges and universities “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” meaning, of course that for some twenty years, no other American institutions have worked harder to repress free speech. Consider these recent adventures in the long campus campaign against free expression:

– After a peaceful protest over budget cuts by some faculty and students at Southwestern College, a community college near San Diego, four faculty members were suspended without a hearing and ordered off campus. No explanation was offered for the action, but the letters of suspension cited a reference number in California’s penal code that bars people from “willfully disrupting the orderly operation of the campus.” The protest had focused on the cancellation of 400 course sections due to the state’s severe budget problems.
– Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project was invited to join a panel on immigration at the Harvard Law School, then disinvited in response to protests that he is a racist who specializes in “hate speech.” Gilchrist, who strongly opposes illegal immigration, is a frequently banned speaker. Students stopped him from speaking twice at Columbia, once through a shoutfest that led to a cancellation of the panel, once by a student committee that invited and then disinvited him. One student protestor defended the censorship at Harvard by telling the Boston Globe that Gilchrist’s removal will allow discussions to move toward policy, rather than animosity.
– The administration of St. Louis University banned a scheduled speech by David Horowitz on grounds that he might “insinuate… that people of the Islamic faith are fascists.” Horowitz, a dedicated activist and provocateur, does not refer to all Muslims as fascists, but uses the term “Islamo-fascists” to refer to terrorists and their sympathizers. St. Louis University, a Catholic institution, “may have the worst policy in the country about guest speakers,” according to John Wilson, writing on his website, College Freedom. Controversial speakers must gain approvals from the Department of Student Life and Campus Ministry, and may not contradict the beliefs of the Catholic Church, the Jesuit order or the university.
– It has been nearly three months since professor Thomas Thibeault was fired by the president of East Georgia College for “a long history of sexual harassment.” Supporters say Thibeault’s real offense was complaining, at a sexual harassment seminar two days before his firing, that the school’s harassment policy contained no protection for the falsely accused. Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote: “The full documentation is here, but you will search in vain for any actual evidence or even an accuser.”

In sum, many colleges and universities will fight hard for freedom of expression, unless it’s inconvenient or threatens to bring bad publicity


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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