The data are beginning to bear out the popular theory that free speech on campus is in steady decline.
A study commissioned by the William F. Buckley Center at Yale found that 51% of college students favor speech codes to regulate speech for both faculty and students. Relatedly, a Pew poll found that a full 40% of American millennials feel that the government should be able to take measures preventing speech that is offensive to minority groups.
It is against this backdrop that pockets of the left have found a reason to fight for free speech—to resist conservative efforts to ban “whiteness,” and “white privilege” studies and other classes likely to produce group resentment. An example is the now-dead HB 2120, a bill by two Arizona Republicans calling for the prohibition of any curricular activities that promote resentment of particular groups, or in any way “advocate solidarity or isolation based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, or social class.” The catalysts were events like the University of Arizona’s annual “privilege walk” and a course called “Whiteness and Race Theory.” The bill, in essence, sought to rein in those courses and campus events that use diversity as a cudgel in today’s culture wars.
What seems to distinguish it from other recent reform efforts being undertaken by a handful of states is its active identification of unscrupulous, if not outright discriminatory, academic programming. Advocating group solidarity or isolation could conceivably be said to violate standards of inclusive excellence or cross-cultural dialogue, two mainstays of the progressive administration of higher education. Within that rhetorical framework is the rationale for many state legislators who feel that such concepts militate against free and open discourse by marginalizing certain viewpoints and establishing protected classes of students.
The states that have modeled their reforms on statements like the University of Chicago’s Stone Report and the draft legislation proposed by the Goldwater Institute have, quite rightly, identified speech as a negative liberty, not to be infringed upon by arbitrary and exasperatingly fluid terms of discourse. Thus, these legislative efforts have taken aim at such things as “safe spaces,” speaker dis-invitations, and active, repeated disruptions of those exercising the right of speech. The reasons are clear. As Tennessee’s Student Free Speech Protection Act plainly states, “In recent years, state institutions of higher education have abdicated their responsibility to uphold free speech principles.”
However, Arizona’s HB 2120 seems to be ironically somewhat congenial to a culture in which students are deterred from taking political chances or saying virtually anything that could be construed as a personal affront or an inducement to emotional discomfort. Despite its placement athwart the identity studies paradigm, the bill could still be said to validate a commitment to the creation of a safe and inclusive learning environment. Such thinking is not wholly irregular. It simply applies the idea that speech which targets individuals for their membership in a particular identity group is divisive and thereby subject to regulation.
What connects the two competing legislative tasks is an acknowledgment that the rancor and division on campuses can be perpetuated rather than mitigated by diversity regimes that are sustained by narratives of victimization. Likewise, they both presuppose a correlation between the campus’s multicultural ethos and the student’s manufactured right to be protected from certain forms of speech. The logic of this fundamental freedom has been inverted and exploited, and the notion that First Amendment protections can be circumscribed for identitarian reasons has become intuitive.
And so, HB 2120 might, in fact, be interpreted as taking aim more broadly at institutionalized political activism. As such, it has its detractors, many of whom have unfurled the banner of free speech. Criticisms of Arizona’s bill, not unpredictably, are consistent with those of speech protection acts elsewhere, and they are not necessarily wrong. They are just late and unevenly applied.
Consider, for example, the AAUP’s Academe Blog, which, while opposing the Goldwater Institute’s model, expresses concern that “it uses legislation rather than persuasion to accomplish its goals.” Similarly, its response to Tennessee’s bill claims an attack on free speech and complains that the legislation “imposes bizarre and burdensome regulations that administrators will struggle to understand and implement.” While the AAUP has been fairly consistent in its skepticism of federal and state intervention into the affairs of higher education, a more overtly partisan campus constituency might make the false distinction between the legislative efforts in question and things like Title IX-related “Dear Colleague” letters.
Thus, the responses to HB 2120 are instructive. While local and somewhat obscure, the bill has garnered the attention of some students and faculty who are aghast at the prospect of any challenges to their role as arbiters of protected speech.
An opinion piece in the Daily Wildcat, the University of Arizona’s student newspaper, is titled “HB2120: The Next Step in Ending Education as we Know it.”
Indeed, education as we have come to know it is a social justice crusade, interested as much in promoting a left-wing, globalist counter-culture as it is discovering truth through inquiry. That this model might be imperiled by such legislation is surely something that more than a few observers could live with, for better or for worse.
Nevertheless, the inscription of censorship within this curricular model seems lost on those inured to its orthodoxies. A columnist for the State Press at Arizona State University argues without irony that the bill targets both “diversity and individuality.” That view is reinforced by LaDawn Haglund, associate professor of Justice and Social Inquiry at ASU, who claims the bill “ignore[s] the very foundation of American society.”
The outrage is not confined, however, to the state of Arizona. A columnist for the Indiana Daily Student finds the bill “sickening” and urges readers to “come together as a nation and realize that freedoms of speech and expression trump anyone’s feelings.” That theme was echoed on my campus, where the student newspaper devoted two editorials to the topic. One wrote that “There should never be a reason to silence other individuals to push a political agenda,” while another, also relating symptoms of physical illness, complained that “we are being strangled by more rules and regulation that are simply unnecessary.”
Amen to all that. If the idea of speech deregulation catches on, perhaps we can add to the list “free speech zones” as well as those codes discouraging the utterance of such verbal haymakers as “ugly,” “you guys,” “illegal alien,” and, you guessed it, “political correctness.”
Unfortunately, students take many cues from the social justice reprogramming they are now vigorously defending. Lee Bebout, an English professor at Arizona State who teaches a course on whiteness, is afraid of “nonexperts” making decisions over what can and cannot be taught on today’s campus.
The criticism is a fair one, but when it comes to the type of courses targeted by HB 2120, we are all experts. Critical race theory suffuses nearly all of the disciplines within the humanities and, most nefariously, general education classes that can be taught as anything, by anyone. Given the ideological makeup of today’s professoriate, one need not wonder why those courses tend to be more James Baldwin than James Burnham.
The grave threat to free speech did not begin with HB 2120 or sundry speech protection acts. The Berkeley riots are just the most recent illustration, but that behavior is enabled by a culture that safeguards against many forms of speech that administrators are all too eager to label “hateful.” It is a baldly political move, and the theory of inclusiveness has been weaponized to cleanse campuses of politically unorthodox thought.
Examples are not hard to find, but interested students might look to Title IX inquisitions against Northwestern feminist professor Laura Kipnis or of Kentucky journalism professor Buck Ryan, who was disciplined for singing “California Girls” in front of female students on a trip abroad. Bias Response Teams have materialized as a way to enforce administrative speech codes, and conservative student organizations can be bullied and harassed while merely attempting to conduct their business.
It would seem that in the case of HB 2120 and similar bills materializing elsewhere, what students have found most frightening is not that speech can be constrained, but that it might not always be constrained by their progressive ideological handlers.
On the campus, free speech is selective, and it is afforded proportionately to students on the basis of their level of grievance. Peter Wood, in The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, refers to this phenomenon as compensatory privilege, and it would seem that in the age of Trump, Diversicrats are digging in their heels.
I am in no position to comment on the merits of legislation aimed at restricting university curricula. As a matter of principle, I am generally opposed to it. It is not, after all, a partisan issue. Both Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Katherine Timpf at National Review have argued cogently against HB 2120 for the damage it would do to academic freedom. This places reasonably concerned parties in good company.
However, anyone experiencing end-of-days deliria over the bill might do well to consider how it is that we arrived at this point. The multicultural program demands obeisance to its dogmas, even at the expense of thought and, yes, free speech. It has led to the still-isolated legislative efforts that students are now so threatened by, even as they sit idly in the face of vandalism, hate-crime hoaxes, and mindless hysteria.
The suppression of speech on college campuses is very real, it is menacing, and it continues unabated. To those just joining the chorus against its excesses, welcome to the club.