The great and widening political divide in the land, marked by hyperbolic rhetoric and personal attacks, is rued by many. And why not? Most everyone would agree that ours would be a more serene and nurturing country if the political differences among us were not so great.
But it is what it is, and it’s precisely because of our differences about the correct social, economic, and foreign policies that it’s so important to protect the right to free speech for all, especially in our colleges and universities.
Unfortunately, that imperative is being honored these days more in the breach than the observance, often by student “progressives” who, in gestures not of tolerance or broad-mindedness but of the rankest kind of illiberalism, attempt to shut down campus functions and speakers with whom they disagree.
The latest example is the recent shoutdown of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was invited to speak at Brown University about the city’s “stop and frisk” policy. After he was met with protesters who wouldn’t allow him to speak, the university pulled the plug.
As reported in the Huffington Post, one of the students who helped organize the protest said that when the university declined to cancel the lecture, “we decided to cancel it for them.” It was, this student said, “a powerful demonstration of free speech.”
Afterwards, the university president said she would convey to Kelly her profound apologies, but it’s unclear how deeply the commissioner will accept them since at a subsequent campus gathering the professor who invited Kelly to speak apologized for doing so, an act reminiscent of a similar affair at Fordham University when, under pressure from students, faculty, and the administration, the campus Young Republicans were coerced into canceling a speech by conservative writer Ann Coulter.
It’s not clear which is worse, the shouting down of people with differing views, or the Orwellian language employed to justify such actions. What the students did at Brown was a “powerful demonstration of free speech” in the same way that mugging someone is a powerful demonstration of free will.
Happily, there’s been commentary about this affair that gives hope for the future of free speech. Two such examples are a Daily Beast piece written by Peter Beinart, and a similar commentary published in the Huffington Post by Greg Lukianoff.
What Beinart and Lukianoff share is a broadly liberal background. Beinart is a former editor of The New Republic; before becoming president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Lukianoff interned at the ACLU of Northern California and served as the managing editor of the EnvironMentors Project in Washington, D.C.
In denouncing the student protestors’ actions, Beinart warns against the collapse on campuses of the “vital center” on free speech issues. “Convinced that freedom of speech is an illusion denied them outside the university gates” he says, “they take revenge in the one arena where the balance of forces tilt their way.”
Writing about, and on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the publication of, the classic book by Jonathan Rauch titled Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attack on Free Thought, Lukianoff offers this:
Of the many side effects of the retreat from free speech that Rauch predicted 20 years ago, one was that if we privilege feelings over free speech and allow claims of offense to slow or stop meaningful discussion, people will naturally abuse this ultimate trump card. In the end, the societal bar for what is “offensive” will simply get lower and lower. This “offendedness sweepstakes,” as Rauch has called it, does not take long to produce terrible or, often, absurd results.
Indeed it does not, as shown by the assault on free speech in the face of triumphant, not to say self-righteous, “political correctness” on the nation’s campuses and elsewhere.
As one commenter poignantly observed in reply to coverage of the Brown affair in Legal Insurrection : “Really scary real-life person prevented from expressing wrong views to delicate flower college students. Fragile students saved from having to listen to upsetting opinion. All is well in academia; students thoroughly prepared for real world now.”
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Nov. 6, 2013.