In the Fight for Free Speech, Courage is Contagious

Donna Shalala, the former president of my alma mater—the University of Miami (UM)—who also held a professorship in my Department of International Studies during her UM tenure, once defended academic freedom:

You can’t have a university without having free speech, even though at times it makes us terribly uncomfortable. If students are not going to hear controversial ideas on college campuses, they’re not going to hear them in America. I believe it’s part of their education.

Sadly, Shalala, throughout her academic career and in her subsequent roles as the president of the Clinton Foundation and a congresswoman, has not exactly lived up to these words. Under Shalala’s chancellorship, the University of Wisconsin became a leader in the national speech code movement that restricted freedom of expression and regulated political speech on college campuses.

In 2006, when Shalala was leading the University of Miami, the school passed a “Harassment or Harm to Others” policy prohibiting harmful words or acts that intentionally or unintentionally cause discomfort or fear. She also fired an UM health executive who blew the whistle on financial mismanagement and fraudulent billing practices at the school’s medical facilities, while today, politician Shalala’s social media posts are filled with partisan bickering.

Shalala, like many other public figures with power and influence, does not walk the talk. Her intolerance then trickles downstream, creating a perpetual environment of censorship and self-censorship in higher education. Last Wednesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released its 2022–2023 College Free Speech Rankings, America’s largest survey on campus free speech. This year’s survey included 203 college campuses and 45,000 student voices. In general, the FIRE survey found that 63% of college students worried about reputational damage if they spoke up, and 63% deemed shouting down controversial speakers acceptable. Among the 203 universities and colleges studied, the University of Wisconsin ranks #98 and the University of Miami #129, both below the national average. One UM Class of 2023 student commented:

I was bullied by hundreds of left-wing students for expressing myself on social media and on campus because I had right wing beliefs. I have been extremely depressed since that happened. Administration did next to nothing to help me. I felt that this school supported the bullying.

This is emblematic of a broader trend in American higher education, where political speech and discussions on controversial topics are sanctioned and tilted toward particular political viewpoints, often in a top–bottom fashion. San Diego State University (SDSU), a flagship campus for the California State University system, recently endorsed an initiative by its Division of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity to incorporate “diversity and inclusion statements” in faculty syllabi. This development is a follow-up to the school’s Fall 2020 policy that requires all syllabi to include “Land Acknowledgement” statements. These policy changes are part of SDSU’s “anti-oppression” efforts to bring “anti-racism” and “allyship” into the classroom.

[Related: “Even Liberal Students Are Afraid to Speak”]

According to the FIRE survey, SDSU ranks #121, with 71% of its students saying that “they are worried about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done” and 61% finding it acceptable to shout down a speaker.

Last month, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) posted an open position for “Medical Director for Kidney Transplant” on the American Society of Nephrology website. The successful candidate must submit a “Contributions to Diversity Statement,” the guidelines of which are developed by UCSF’s Office of Diversity and Outreach “with the help of the Faculty Equity Advisors.” The diversity statement is the only application requirement among others—including a curriculum vitae, a cover letter, and research and teaching statements—that includes additional information and guidelines.

These guidelines are developed by the faculty advisory team which also prescribes best practices for diverse faculty recruitment. These include the following provisions:

School of Medicine requires that search committees comprise 50% women or underrepresented minorities (URM).

School of Nursing requires that search committees comprise 25% men or minorities.

Schools of Dentistry and Pharmacy require that search committees comprise 25% women or minorities.

While most diversity pledges pay lip service to non-discrimination and equal treatment regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or other personal characteristics, actual practices are nothing but blatant race- and/or sex-based quotas. The UCSF Taskforce on Equity and Anti-Racism in Research even drafted 164 policy recommendations, most of which are concerned with thought conformity and preferential treatment.

At the institutional level, UCSF’s “diversity hub” is well streamlined with processes, guidelines, resources, and data for topics such as reparations, representation, gender inclusivity, and anti-racism. Opposing voices are dismissed and criticized as causing “the extremely high degree of our national discord and divisiveness.” One key recommendation is for the school’s faculty and staff, most of whom work in the medical field, to uproot racial hierarchies and partner with “researchers skilled in critical race theory.”

[Related: “Muzzling Free Speech at Berkeley Law”]

Luckily, an emerging force of students, alumni, and vanguard organizations like FIRE is uniting to rock the anti-free-speech orthodoxy, with varying degrees of success.

A national network of alumni groups from 13 universities and colleges has formed the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA) to promote “free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.” Alumni from over 110 American higher education institutions have contacted the alliance for guidance on forming their own alumni free speech groups. The MIT Free Speech Alliance, a founding member of the AFSA, just celebrated MIT’s recent release of a “Report on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom,” in which the school restates its commitment to free and objective inquiry and free expression. The report is hailed as a welcome response to the MIT Free Speech Alliance’s request to protect free speech.

With FIRE’s help, a college student who had been dismissed by the Kansas City Art Institute for reposting sexual art on social media was able to return to school after the expulsion was reversed. Dr. Steven Earnest, a professor at Coastal Carolina University, was fully reinstated after facing threats of termination from the school for criticizing student protestors. Gordon Klein, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles who refused to grade students differently on the basis of race and was suspended by the school, resumed his teaching responsibilities and has sued UCLA for retaliating against him. Thanks to a faculty whistleblower, SDSU has overturned the rule requiring Land Acknowledgement in syllabi and has made the diversity statement optional instead of mandatory.

In almost every case, it takes a courageous insider to stand up, sometimes with the help of an outside advocacy group, to safeguard freedom of speech, an essential component of a liberal higher education.

Courage is contagious. Last week, I was approached by a high school senior in Southern California with evidence of a SDSU English professor defining “fascism” for a high school class as “Republicans, heterosexuals, white Christians and haters of foreigners.” When another student commented that her family had voted for Trump, the professor responded with intimidation and ridicule: “well, they must be stupid.” This brave student has decided to speak out at the risk of being targeted by the school and his peers because he values free speech and the freedom to dissent. As Salman Rushdie once said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”


Image: Feng Yu, Adobe Stock

Wenyuan Wu

Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

2 thoughts on “In the Fight for Free Speech, Courage is Contagious

  1. As one who paid a very high price for saying unpopular things, I need to remind people that the institution will simply wait and get you for something else.

    1. Indiana University tried doing the same to me, but I was retiring anyway, so it didn’t come to a lawsuit. It’s important to get organizations like AFSA and the MIT Free Speech Alliance in place *before* the incident occurs, because then they can help. FIRE’s good,but it’s national, and way overloaded. If anybody wants counsel and encouragement, email me at erasmuse61@gmail.com. My “Lessons on Woke Mobbing” may be useful too, see http://www.rasmusen.org/special/2019kerfuffle/lessons.htm .

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