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Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee

October 30, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By MIKE MANNO

I was intrigued by a recent article in the Daily Princetonian written by a junior philosophy major, Ryan Born. It was an argument against free speech — at least for conservatives. It was a reflection on what is wrong on university campuses today.
Now I don’t know the young man who wrote the article, and I am sure he is sincere and a good student, but it is his ideas that I have trouble with, especially in today’s current politically correct climate. A climate that says some conservative views, whether on religion or politics, have no business being heard.
“I am not arguing that conservatives do not expect intellectual opposition to their content; instead, I am arguing against their right to be heard and accepted,” wrote our student philosopher.
“Conservatives would have you believe that their insistence on free speech is related to a desire for intellectual diversity and openness or discussion. When conservatives appeal to ‘free speech,’ it is actually a calculated political move, designed to open up avenues of political discourse while shaming others from moving in active political opposition. I argue that when conservatives resort to this move, they can be safely ignored, as they are appealing to a right that does not exist. In my belief, when conservative ideas are opposed, there is no right that is being infringed,” he wrote.
Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise to many. All too often we see conservative speakers on college campuses either being interrupted and shouted down, or their invitations to speak withdrawn by college administrators.
Fears of violent protest against conservative speakers have caused some colleges to charge unreasonably high rental fees from sponsoring organizations to cover “security costs,” others cancel speakers due to the fear that overly sensitive students will face some psychological harm if exposed to some nefarious idea from the political or religious right.
Case in point is a recent withdrawal of school sponsorship of a debate on the pros and cons of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and President Trump’s plan to rescind it, pending congressional action.
The law school at Seattle University had agreed to sponsor the event in conjunction with the student chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative/libertarian legal group. The program was to have been conducted as part of the school’s Social Justice Mondays series which had sponsored such programs as “Refugee Roundtable” and “Reproductive Justice.”
According to the website The College Fix, the law school’s Direct Action Committee organized an online petition to cancel the event. The petition read:
“We refuse to sit by and let hateful xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric be a part of the culture/message/speech of Seattle University School of Law and Seattle University as a whole. We demand the school act on behalf of its undocumented students, and instead of cosponsoring programming which is harmful to them, they should foster an environment which is safe for them and for everyone else on campus.”
It worked. Dean Annette Clark withdrew the school’s sponsorship saying that Mr. Trump has “generated great fear within vulnerable immigrant communities and has caused real harm, making discussions of immigration policy that include a conservative viewpoint even more painful and anxiety- and anger-producing for those individuals and families who are at risk (and for their allies).”
While the program was allowed to continue under the sole sponsorship of the Federalist Society, the dean scheduled an alternative pro-DACA event. That the pro-DACA program was acceptable, but a pro/con debate — for law students, of all people — apparently was not, is only one example of how thought control and free speech are handled on many of today’s colleges.
“I fail to see the basis for the withdrawal of the sponsorship as well as the apology by [Dean] Clark for holding a balanced debate on an issue [with] great national importance,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, adding: “The debate reflects precisely the mission of higher education to encourage debates on issues that divide our country,” according to The College Fix.
Another example which flew under the radar was reported at See Thru EDU, a publication of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. In September the academic journal Third World Quarterly published an essay by Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, entitled “The Case for Colonialism.”
Shortly after the article was published over 16,000 college professors signed a petition demanding that the article be retracted, and it was.
According to See Thru EDU’s George Leef, “The scholars who signed the petitions were not disagreeing with Gilley. They were demanding that he be silenced. They also wanted apologies from both [Gilley] and the journal. Just as totalitarian regimes of the last century insisted that dissidents acknowledge their errors before being sent off to ‘re-education’ camps, so do our contemporary progressives insist that people who say or write ‘offensive’ things bow down before them.”
He closed by stating, “Shouting speakers down and demanding retraction of ‘incorrect’ writings are the hallmarks of authoritarianism. It is deeply disturbing to see how far it has spread into our higher education system.”
In Wisconsin the Board of Regents recently voted for a new policy that imposes punishments ranging from suspension to expulsion for students who violate free speech rights on campus. One regent who opposed the policy objected to the language that a student “alleged to have engaged in violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupted the free expression of others” could face discipline.
Campus Reform reports that Regent Tony Evers claimed the new policy, which targets activities used to close debate, will chill speech on campuses. “Proponents of this anti-free speech legislation argue liberal biases have overwhelmed our college campuses, but then cannot provide one single example of a conservative speaker being unable to complete their remarks at any college or university in Wisconsin,” Evers is reported to have said.
The Economist reported last year that there is a growing belief by many that people and groups have a right not to be offended. It cites, as an example, an action taken by the University of California saying that calling “America a land of opportunity” is a “racist micro-aggression” since it could be interpreted that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.
Are we starting to understand now how our Princeton philosopher comes by his understanding of free speech? And what cost is it to the mission of the university?
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has found that a majority of students now self-censor their classroom comments, support disinviting campus speakers who hold beliefs with which they disagree, and do not know that hate speech is largely protected by the First Amendment.
“[Fifty-eight] percent of college student think it’s important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas,” FIRE reports. “In class, 30 percent of students have self-censored because they thought their words would be offensive….Very liberal students are 14 percentage points more likely than their very conservative peers to feel comfortable expressing their opinions in the classroom.”
“There is clearly a partisan divide in how students perceive free speech on college campuses,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “This further solidifies the importance of FIRE’s mission. Free expression is too important to become a partisan issue in higher education.”
The well-known Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, agrees. He told Fox Business News, “Classrooms have become propaganda vehicles where captive audiences of students are told not how to think but what to think, particularly about sensitive issues like the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, gay rights, Black Lives Matter, and they are graded on what they think, rather than how they think.”
The issue is so prevalent that the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has opened a new website as a resource for students facing attacks on their speech rights. ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, director of the Center for Academic Freedom, said:
“Today’s college students are tomorrow’s judges, legislators, teachers, and voters. Yet public universities are not only failing to educate the next generation about their First Amendment freedoms, they are actively violating those rights and teaching the next generation that freedom of speech is too dangerous to permit.”
We’ve come a long way from the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District allowing students to wear black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War, and the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio allowing the Ku Klux Klan to rally, to now where “safe spaces” are common and students at Kellogg Community College in Michigan can be arrested for handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution and To Kill a Mockingbird can be banned from classroom discussion in a Mississippi school district.
The danger, of course, is that free speech is the bedrock for all of our freedoms: Press, religion, assembly, petition; without it our democracy will wane and so will freedom of thought, for if you can control speech you can control thought. “Newspeak” taught us that, but unfortunately we are coming to the point where our institutions dedicated to training our future leaders have missed the thrust of Orwell’s message.

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