Free Speech on Campus



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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  1. Avatar Bo says: explained how free speech works at college in a 2001 piece on David Horowitz’s PC baiting. (remember him, anyone?):

    it’s tempting to applaud Horowitz for shining a light up this particular orifice of American academia. Who can honestly say they’re not shocked to learn that the best minds of the next generation are so hostile to open and forthright debate?

    Well, for starters, anybody who has actually been to college. You might have many fond memories of dear old school days: that mid-lecture crackup by the alkie professor, those fumbling copulations in your stinky dorm room; that hilarious loss of bowel and bladder control at Ye Olde Rathskeller. But free speech? Does anybody recall college as a place that valued reasoned discourse? For all the Platonic notions we may have of the pursuit of ideas, the Aristotelian reality of the college experience involves heavy helpings of thin-skinned combativeness, post-adolescent superciliousness and CISPES meetings.


    Somewhere between the childhood activities of pretending to be doctors, cops or firefighters and the adult activities of pretending to be Republicans, Democrats or CEOs, we pass through a state of supreme pretense, in which we’re decked out in the clothes of adulthood with few or none of the responsibilities, in which we can throw our passions into safe and meaningless crusades. These crusades are fun, they feel important, and they can easily engage our passions. And in general nobody gets hurt, because the only people who don’t realize it’s all a big game are the students who are playing


  2. Avatar Freddie says:

    Yeah, this is pretty much all bogus. Conservatives attack colleges with this stuff all the time– David Horowitz has been trying for aeons– and it’s always hype, never truth. The truth is, American higher education is the envy of the world, and conservatism is an anti-intellectual edifice, and so they hate it. There really is nothing more to it than that. I say that as someone who, unlike the average conservative or libertarian, has spent the large majority of my life on a college campus.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Freddie says:

      C’mon man, read the article. The abuse is pretty thoroughly bipartisan. I also don’t think that the free speech issues the article raises are closely linked to, say, the quality of an institution’s professors.Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to Freddie says:

      Clearly you’ve spent too much time in your academic ivory tower.Report

    • Avatar mike farmer in reply to Freddie says:

      You are coming undone. This is unintentionally hilarious, is a pathetic sort of way. Any one what has to state how much time they’ve spent on a college campus to show some type of intellectual superiority is neither, just insecure and bitter.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM in reply to Freddie says:

      Really, none of your schools have had “free speech zones” and banned any kind of organized political activity outside of a narrow corner of campus? Never had an anti-war protest fenced or or blocked by administrators? It’s not a matter of Horowitz’s kind of accusations of “dangerous liberal indoctrination” (which is pretty blatantly censorship itself.) It is, instead, institutional cowardice masquerading as politesse. Indeed, it was the left-wing student groups who were faced with the most censorship and harassment at Central Florida when I was a student there.

      This paragraph is dead on:


      The perception that free speech on campus is primarily a conservative issue ultimately enables campus censors. Free speech zones, for example, are often tiny, out-of-the-way areas where some campuses quarantine protest activities. Obtaining permission to use even these limited spaces often involves waiting periods and registration requirements. In my experience the zones disproportionately affect left-wing protests. In November, for example, three professors were banned from campus at Southwestern College in California after they supported students whose protest against budget cuts took place outside—I am not making this up—the “free speech patio.” Nevertheless, the conservative website has listed a free speech zone as a “leftist” campus abuse. While the site commendably wants to bring attention to these speech cages, such labeling helps campus bureaucrats brush off criticism as the hobbyhorse of a disfavored political minority, rather than an expression of concern over policies that affect all students.


      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to JosephFM says:

        My universities (I went to three!) had free speech zones. Brother so-and-so was only allowed to speak in a particular corner of a particular common area outside. When kids were protesting South America or whatever the hip thing was at the time, they had to keep it to the same place.

        This made more sense to me when I was 20 than it does now.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Freddie says:

      You are degenerating into a caricature of yourself. You are too young for that.

      Read the work of Alan Charles Kors or Erin O’Connor or KC Johnson on these subjects.Report

    • Avatar Dave in reply to Freddie says:

      I hope that this was an attempt at humor.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Freddie says:

      The burning of publications is a bogus non-issue?

      Given this country’s (newly?) permissive view of political speech, there are very few things that should earn the label un-American. I would imagine that the theft of publications with the intent to censor would solidly be on that list.Report

  3. Avatar Rufus says:

    I don’t know if the problem is politics so much as the customer service mentality that reigns at a lot of the larger universities. I’ve been amazed at some of the things students feel entitled to complain about and administrators feel obligated to crack down on. We do, indeed, get suggestions on what color marker to use in grading- certain colors are upsetting after all. And, yes, it’s been hinted to me that giving students bad grades might upset them too much. So, that obsequious style of education might well encourage grievances, even among a relatively apolitical student body.

    But, no, I’ve never seen “free speech zones” or bans on specific protests either. And I’ve not gotten any documents on political speech to avoid in the classroom. Although, it was suggested that I stop screaming “Say you love Mao!!” at the students until they cry.

    The one time I actually saw a crusade of this sort, it was very personalized. One student was upset with one prof for showing a video in class about ongoing global conflicts that the student felt was too kind to the Palestinians. I’ve since watched the video and it was absolutely banal and inoffensive. But the student contacted an advocacy group on the other side of the country and they, in turn, contacted the local papers, and the whole thing got blown way out of proportion. Eventually, someone realized that accusing the professor of being an anti-Israel anti-Semite was a bit much; the critics apparently were completely unaware that the woman is both Jewish and Israeli; and the whole thing blew over. Nevertheless, I think that student spent her entire time in university trying to get that professor fired.Report

  4. Avatar Kyle says:

    Like Freddie, I have a personal bias on the issue, obviously I’ve gone to college, attended one of the universities listed in the article. Presumably unlike Freddie, I was a publication editor whose publications were stolen to prevent speech. One time the offending article was considered racially insensitive, another our cover article published an account that was embarrassing to both a frat house and Governor Pataki.

    With some bias, I agree with the article/Will’s lede. Offensive speech should be countered, debated, not censored. A view of speech and expression that says free but only as long as it doesn’t offend anyone, isn’t healthy for either scientific free inquiry or a well-functioning democracy (not that we aren’t dysfunctional now).Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle says:

      This is one of the things that absolutely ticks me off.

      We have cultivated a number of folks who honestly and truly believe in the memory hole. Folks did this a handful of times back when I was in school… a story would come out that was offensive to some group, this group would then take every newspaper from every area where it was delivered and make sure that nobody would read the offending story.

      AND THIS HAD DEFENDERS!!! Everything from “students will be students” to “the editors should have known better” to “my tuition pays for that newspaper” to the infuriatingly disingenuous “they’re free papers for anybody to take”.

      Not just students (which, I suppose, *MIGHT* be understandable, students being students) gave these arguments but, sometimes, *PROFESSORS*.

      The controversy usually resulted in more people talking about it than not talking about it… but it also seemed that the message was intended to get the editors to not talk about that subject ever again… lest the papers get stolen again.

      Down the memory hole and let that be a lesson to you.Report

  5. Avatar Sam M says:

    I would like to make a case FOR blatant politicization of the academy. Or at least a case for, who cares? All of which goes back to my views on creationism in the biology classroom. Meaning, I am pretty convinced nobody is listening anyways, and it’s quite a but harder than you think to indoctrinate people.

    Yes, it’s anecdotal, but I went to an “elite” northeastern university widely known for its liberal indoctrination. All during a time when the speech codes and the sex codes and all the rest were raging in the 90s. I mean, this was serious stuff. And you know what? I didn’t listen. And neither did any of the kids who made of the hugely influential conservative group on campus, most of whom went on to work for conservative think tanks, conservative publications, etc. I mean, they are running the vast right wing conspiracy right now. Literally.

    Every once in a while, National Review will come out with a list of acceptable “conservative” colleges. Rubbish. If you have a kid who’s really conservative and is committed to exploring those ideas in a serious way, there’s just as much gain in sending him to Brown or Yale as there is in sending him to Hillsdale. If he’s such a sensitve sort that even a whiff of patchoulli will send him into a fit of Rastafarian hugginess and abortionizing, you probably raised him wrong anyway. Again, this is the same thing as saying that even a mention of Intelligent Design will convince the future scientists of America to burn their calculators, start watching the 700 Club, and sacrife sheep and virgins to yahweh.

    Relax. Have a cigarette or something.Report

    • Avatar Kyle in reply to Sam M says:

      Ostensibly, I agree, if the issue is whether a campus has a liberal or conservative bent, that shouldn’t really be a problem. In this case, however, I think we’re clearly talking about a separate but sometimes related phenomenon. Namely, that universities and quite a few of their students prize the fictitious right not to be offended by speech and expression as more valuable than the manifest right to voice or write one’s opinions.Report