Why Don’t More College Leaders Back Free Speech?

Free speech censored

You might think that higher education leaders, who have almost all been steeped in the academic traditions of the free exchange of ideas, would uniformly stand up for free speech. Learning about those traditions is, after all, a key part of what college should be about for students.

Sadly, college officials often bow down to bullying students when they demand that people they assume they disagree with — I say “assume” because the students often know virtually nothing about the individuals they want to silence – be prevented from speaking. Either they just want to avoid the constant trouble that these zealous students are apt to cause if they won’t go along, or they sympathize with the students and see no problem in declaring some people and their ideas intolerable. Whatever the reason, they are complicit in helping to tear down the intellectual framework of our civilization.

The good news is that occasionally we find higher education leaders with the backbone to say “no” to demands that individuals be silenced. One recent case involves the outspoken and iconoclastic professor Camille Paglia, who has taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984.

[The Looming Danger for Dissident Professors]

Paglia disagrees with much of the feminist belief system. For example (as we read in this Inside Higher Ed story), she has criticized women students who file rape charges long after the incident, saying that when women bring complaints that way, “it is not feminism,” but instead stems from “a bourgeois culture of excuses.” Paglia is also skeptical about transgenderism.

For those and other offenses against “progressive” ideology, a group of students drafted a petition calling for Professor Paglia to be fired and “replaced by a queer person of color.”

But the university’s president, David Yager, firmly rejected the petition. He responded to the students, “I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence….We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures.”

Well said, President Yager.

For every college leader like Yager, however, there seem to be several who cave into the demands of the speech suppressors.

Consider the administration of Middlebury College. Middlebury was the site of the infamous riot to prevent Charles Murray from speaking in 2017. Ryszard Legutko, a philosophy professor at Jagiellonian University in Poland and a member of the European Parliament, was recently scheduled to give a lecture entitled “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.”

[How ‘Social Justice’ Undermines True Diversity]

Might Legutko have some worthwhile insights about that? Unfortunately, no one at Middlebury was able to find out, because a group of “progressive” students and faculty members objected to allowing him to speak. They complained about Legutko’s criticism of multiculturalism, feminism, and homosexuality. Therefore, to the opponents, he was a bigot who shouldn’t be permitted to address the campus.

Although the faculty members who had arranged the talk argued that it should go ahead, the school’s administration gave in. Provost Jeff Cason sent an email just hours before Legutko’s talk was scheduled, saying, “In the interest of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff, and community members, the lecture by Ryszard Legutko will not take place. This decision was not taken lightly. It was based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response.” (For the details of the story, see this Washington Free Beacon piece.)

Is it true that Middlebury College just couldn’t protect everyone’s safety if the talk went ahead? One person who isn’t convinced is Charles Murray, who wrote on April 19 that Middlebury’s president could have guaranteed safety with a simple campus pronouncement.

In the lecture hall, you will be free to engage Professor Legutko’s ideas during the Q&A period. You are not free to interrupt the lecture. Anyone who does so will be suspended for the rest of the academic term. Shouts and boos will be considered interruptions. For that matter, applause will be considered an interruption. It is a lecture, not a stump speech. Treat it as such.

[Ten Things Destroying American Higher Education]

Did it not occur to the top brass at Middlebury that a threat of serious punishment for misbehavior would keep the students in line? Or did they not want to lose their “woke” credentials by standing up for free speech?

Even though the Middlebury administration had no backbone, one professor dared to invite Mr. Legutko to speak in his class. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, political science professor Matthew Dickinson asked his class of nine students if they wanted to hear him and all agreed. Word spread around campus, and 45 students came to the class. Legutko gave his talk and afterward there was a spirited and civil discussion. No thanks to the college, ideas were exchanged.

Another disappointing case involves Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield. He had been invited to give the commencement address at the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University in Montreal. The college is devoted to the study of great books, and that is what Mansfield was going to discuss.

Then, abruptly, Mansfield was disinvited. Why? As he explains in this Wall Street Journal piece, “What had taken place…was a faculty meeting prompted by a letter from 12 alumni that demanded a reversal of the committee’s invitation because my ‘scholarly and public corpus heavily traffics in damaging and discredited philosophies of gender and culture.’”

The disinvitation came from the Principal of the Liberal Arts College, Mark Russell.  Rather than forthrightly saying that college officials had caved in when pressured by a few leftist opponents, his letter tried to evade the reality of the situation by saying, “we were unable to reach consensus as to what we wanted to achieve with this event.”

Like Middlebury’s, that was a lame excuse. But at least Russell didn’t overtly side with the anti-speech forces, as was the case recently at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). Daily Wire writer Michael Knowles was on campus to give a talk, and his conservative views were known to a group of hecklers who did everything they could (including spraying him with what turned out to be a non-toxic substance) to keep him from communicating them.

And how did UMKC officials respond? Writing on American Thinker, Jack Cashill explains.  “The missive UMKC chancellor Mauli Agrawal sent to the ‘campus community’ after the event reads like a hostage letter. To describe Knowles’ views, Agrawal used the words ‘controversial,’ ‘unpopular,’ and ‘extreme.’ Agrawal concluded his plea for civility by asking students ‘to stay true to our values in the face of provocation and to respond to bias and intolerance with reason and courage.’”

In other words, “Way to go, hecklers!” The only way there won’t be future protests against un-PC speakers at this campus will be if none agree to come. The hecklers have the green light to shout down anyone they regard as “biased.”

So in three of these four schools, when demands were made to silence dissenting voices, the administrators acquiesced. That reinforces an idea that all too many college students already harbor, namely that free speech is not a universal right, but can be curtailed for anyone with “wrong” opinions. And thus they sow the seeds of endless strife.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

One thought on “Why Don’t More College Leaders Back Free Speech?”

  1. “Did it not occur to the top brass at Middlebury that a threat of serious punishment for misbehavior would keep the students in line?”

    It simply wouldn’t be believed — there have been so many times and places where the radical leftist thugs have gotten away with bad behavior that there is a sense of entitlement where they genuinely believe that they are entitled to get away with it.

    Above and beyond this, Koors & Silverglate got it right 20 years ago when they stated that the philosophy of most administrators is “no trouble on my watch” — to appease the violent (and oppress the peaceful) so as to avoid “trouble.”

    Middlebury avoided “trouble” — that what was behind how they dealt with the chemistry professor who asked the truly obtuse question on concentrations of Hydrogen Cyanide — attack both him and the student publication that reported it. The mantra is “no trouble on my watch” — to do whatever is necessary to have “peace in our time.”

    The sad thing is that this thuggery is going to inexorably progress to the point where people wind up dead, at which point real cops and real courts are going to have to do something about it. And for those who worry about the radical right, I suggest looking at how we are actually encouraging them to be violent, as the podium belongs to the most violent thugs.

    The middle will not continue to hold indefinitely…..

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