The Assault on Free Thought

The academic left’s efforts to suppress opposing views is fierce, agile, and determined. It can summon an angry mob at a moment’s notice, get the undivided attention of a busy college president, or turn on the tears over the anguish a student feels when oppressed. Whether the goal is to bar a speaker, deface a mural, or fire a professor, the left stays focused.

Those, like Minding the Campus, that push back against the left’s comprehensive attacks on free expression are much fewer. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) deserves pride of place among the defenders. Heterodox Academy has done an admirable job sticking up for liberal academics who have found themselves ostracized by the hard left. My organization, the National Association of Scholars, speaks up for what might be called deplorable scholars.

These are scholars who have come under attack for upholding traditional values. We don’t necessarily agree with everything these scholars say and write, but we uphold their right to express their views, and we stand against the efforts to suppress their speech and, in many cases, punish them. One recent case is Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who was denounced on Vox as a “white supremacist.” I answered her critics in Spectator USA. This wasn’t the first time Professor Wax was attacked. She was denounced for her defense of “bourgeois values” in August 2017, and again in March 2018 for criticizing racial preferences in Penn Law School’s admissions.

[Word by Word, SJWs Are Changing America] 

The Case for Colonialism

Once attacked, a deplorable scholar is often targeted again and again. When Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State, came under ferocious attack for publishing a peer-reviewed article, “The Case for Colonialism,” in the mainstream journal Third World Studies, we rose to his defense. When his original publisher caved in the face of death threats and erased Gilley’s article, we republished it in our journal, Academic Questions. The matter died away from public attention, Portland State proceeded to persecute Gilley for various imaginary infractions. We filed freedom-of-information requests to get at exactly who initiated these attacks.

Portland State came into our sights again this year when it launched an investigation into the actions of Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy, who had spoofed several left-wing journals by submitting burlesques of their typical research articles. Some of Boghossian’s hoaxes were accepted and published, which Boghossian and his collaborators took as evidence of the hollow intellectual standards in the fields they characterized as “grievance studies.”

The parties they embarrassed, however, wanted revenge, and they sought it by invoking the university’s rules on “research misconduct.” Boghossian, as it happened, had not told the editors that his hoaxes were hoaxes, thus tricking them into taking the articles seriously. That this complaint could be taken seriously by the university is either a sign of mental infirmity on the part of the administrators or—and more likely—their eagerness to find a pretext for punishing him. A charge that Boghossian failed to protect the imaginary animals he reported on in one article was dismissed, but Portland State found him guilty of failing to warn the editors of his ruse.

Rachel Fulton Brown is a professor of history at the University of Chicago who landed in hot water by criticizing the efforts of a handful of academic radicals who were trying to recast medieval studies as a chronicle of racist oppression. We circulated an open letter in her defense and published our own statement calling on the university to support her academic freedom. I wrote in her defense, “Anatomy of a Smear,” on Inside Higher Ed. The matter has not subsided. It appears that because some self-professed “white nationalists” view medieval Europe as a template for exclusively white society, professional historians are coming under pressure to embrace a multiculturalist reinterpretation of the European past. Scholars such as Brown are targeted for refusing to go along with this new fictionalized history.

[How Nine Universities Pander to Campus Radicals]

That’s far from an exhaustive list of the deplorable scholars we defended. Others include Dennis Gouws, John McAdams, Colleen Sheehan, John Derbyshire, Samuel Abrams, and most recently Raymond Ibrahim—the historian disinvited by the Army War College after the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained about his views on Islamic terror. We have circulated a petition calling on the Army War College to restore its invitation. This petition has over 4,000 signatories thus far.

Deplorable scholars are the academics most vulnerable to attack by their own institutions and least likely to get support from organizations such as the AAUP, which swagger around proclaiming their deep commitment to academic freedom.

Are Shoutdowns Free Speech?

It is now routine on some campuses to treat shout-downs as exercises in “free speech.” Moreover, “free speech” was almost the whole of Oberlin’s defense when it emerged that Oberlin administrators were complicit with student protesters in attacking Gibson’s Bakery as a racist institution.

I am drawing a distinction that no doubt others would decry as hypocritical but draw it I must. Higher education exists to pursue truth, transmit the positive legacy of our civilization, cultivate good character, and prepare students for their vocations. Academic freedom is an instrument that usually bolsters these goals, but not always. To claim academic freedom to propagate falsehoods, slander, and calumny is wrong. To use academic freedom as a cover for anti-civilizational propaganda is wrong as well. To employ it as a means for convincing young people that violence is a legitimate tool of political action is also wrong.

[The Looming Danger for Dissident Professors]

Drawing these lines isn’t always easy. People sometimes promote wholesome ideas with unwholesome rhetoric or the contrary: people can sound winsome as they promote pernicious ideas. And who is to say what is whole and what is pernicious? In fact, learning to form judgments like that and to hold those judgments cautiously is a significant part of cultivating good character. The rampant relativism of our age, especially on college campuses, hinders the effort to make the necessary distinctions.

All this comes to mind as I watch various traditionalist, conservative, and independent organizations unfairly denounced as “racist” or “white supremacist.” Almost anything will suffice for the Southern Poverty Law Center to make such a pronouncement. There are no real criteria. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets likewise issue peremptory bans—based, we are told, on algorithms that seem to share the cultural outlook of progressive millennials. We are all vulnerable to this regime of rule by accusation.

A substantial and increasing number of people recognize that more is at stake than the careers of a handful of recalcitrant academics. The Amy Wax case is about how we debate immigration and assimilation. The Gilley case is about disastrous misgovernance in the Third World and its reverberations at home. The Boghossian case is about the corruption of higher education and the diversion of public resources into fake academic disciplines. The Fulton Brown case is about the attempt to jam racial ideology into the whole history of our civilization. Every one of these cases is part of the larger story of the progressive left’s attempt to bulldoze Western civilization to make way for its dream of a socialist, multicultural utopia.

Those who grasp this larger picture recognize the to mount a defense. I won’t say a last-ditch defense. We have many ditches to go before then, and we may—given a sufficient awakening—not need them at all. Our civilization has resources that the barbarians truly don’t see or understand. All they really know is how to wreck.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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3 thoughts on “The Assault on Free Thought

  1. What’s being missed here is that the so called “alcohol riots” that started about 20 years ago were inherently political *and* were ruthlessly suppressed so as to preclude any challenge to the Left’s licensed monopoly on thuggery.

    I was there as a journalist and I know what I saw, and I know what I heard.

    At a place like UMass Amherst, waving large American flags and singing God Bless America (albeit *way* off key) is inherently political. This was the modern incarnation of “torches & pitchforks”, UMass knew that, and it’s why an institution that nonchalantly tolerated all sorts of Leftist thuggery (including a week-long building “takeover”) ruthlessly suppressed what were, at most, unruly assemblies.

    Worse, over 200 students a year* are turned in to be tried in absentia by UMass’s secret star chamber — knowledgeable sources told me that a lot of this was Leftist faculty demanding the prosecution of students who had disagreed with them in class. And the conservative newspaper was de-facto shut down, with two of the students involved having to immediately transfer elsewhere for incomprehensible reasons, and only two ever managing to *ever* graduate from UMass.

    I was there, and know considerably more than I can state here — UMass ruthlessly stifled every voice to the Right of Vladimir Lenin, and I doubt they are the only ones who have done this. The Left is licensed, the Right suppressed, and the “deplorable scholars” are not being replaced.

    Antifa does not surprise me, 20 years ago folks just like them were disrupting my events…

    * This figure was in circa-2010 job description/advertisement for the Dean of Students.

  2. Mistake – two academics you say are say Portland University, but it’s Portland State University

  3. Just as a crucial matter of fact, two of the key academics discussed are at Portland State University, a large public urban university. The Universuty of Portland is a completely separate Catholic institution.

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