By now, cliches about campus “social justice warriors,” left-wing professors and zealous college administrators suppressing speech are fixtures of mainstream political discourse in America. A 2018 National Review piece argues that “what is oozing out of campuses is creating a less free, less civil, less tolerant society.” New York Times columnist David Brooks chastises “student mobbists” who “manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.” In the Wall Street Journal, Roger Kimball defends President Trump’s executive order “supporting free speech on campus” on the grounds that “politically correct orthodoxy” is used to “intimidate conservative students.”
According to the conventional narrative, left-wing college students, faculty and administrators are the primary threats to free speech. If anyone is burning books, it’s presumably students on the left who find the contents “problematic,” not students offended by progressive pushback against white privilege. But this narrative provides cover for more egregious violations of speech rights. For years now, conservative pundits and politicians have amplified and exploited a small number of elite-college speech controversies for political gain. The benefit of hindsight shows they’ve been crying wolf.
Despite the rhetoric of catastrophe, evidence shows claims of “free speech crisis” on campus are overblown. As Columbia University President Lee Bollinger warns, “We should be careful drawing conclusions based on a handful of sensationalist incidents on campus — incidents sometimes manufactured for their propaganda value.” Yet that’s exactly what those policing the “P.C. police” are doing.
Trump’s March executive order to withdraw funding from colleges and universities that supposedly don’t permit free speech is itself a government threat to police speech on campus. The American Council on Education calls it “a solution in search of a problem.” The order itself adds no new free-speech protections to current law. Instead, the order is part of broader strategy of manufacturing a “free speech crisis” on college campuses, the better to justify tighter government monitoring of campus speech.
In other words, Trump’s executive order throws federal support behind the ongoing effort in state legislatures to exercise control over campus speech, particularly speech deemed unfriendly toward conservatives. In Florida, for example, proposed legislation would require public universities to survey student and faculty political beliefs. More than a dozen “free speech bills” aimed at punishing student protest — most of which is itself protected speech — have been introduced or passed in state legislatures throughout the country. The purpose of such legislation is not to provide new protections for free speech, but to reinforce the terms under which state and federal governments can monitor campus speech, particularly if and when partisan legislators believe campus protests and debates show insufficient respect for conservative ideas.
More recently, the U.S. Education Department issued a warning to the Duke University-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies for running a program that places too much emphasis on “understanding the positive aspects of Islam.” The letter threatened to withdraw federal funding from the program if it didn’t “provide a revised schedule of activities” for the coming year. This is a direct dictate from the federal government to modify the content of an academic program for political purposes, not simply to remain technically compliant with federal funding regulations, but to take into consideration a preferred government position on how to portray Islam. After responding to the warning letter, the consortium did receive federal funding for 2019-20. Like the Trump executive order, however, the letter itself puts campus officials on notice for the content of their academic programs. The columnists most eager to chide students and faculty have been silent about the letter.
The Trump administration has also found subtler ways to police speech. Immigration officials recently revoked the visa of a Palestinian student admitted to Harvard after questioning the student about his friends’ social media posts. The FBI has advised U.S. universities to monitor students and scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.
Even right-leaning pundits who otherwise oppose Trump’s strong-arm tactics and illiberal politics share his administration’s outsize contempt for college student activism. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens returned in a recent column to speech controversies at Yale from several years ago, invoking a 2015 “Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor” to argue that colleges are in thrall to a “radical egalitarianism” that threatens the pursuit of excellence. Stephens’s hyperbolic language of “Maoist-style struggle” is not unique within this genre. A recent Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan, “What Were Robespierre’s Pronouns?,” invokes the guillotine and 1793-94 Reign of Terror as a historical parallel to “the language and behavioral directives that have been coming at us from the social and sexual justice warriors who are renaming things and attempting to control the language in America.”
As pundits like Stephens and Noonan hyperbolically compare campus activists with totalitarian revolutionaries, even the relatively small number of free-speech controversies on college campuses have declined, and the nature of those disinvitations has changed. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) speaker disinvitation database shows that after a spike in speaker disinvitations in 2016 (43 disinvitations) and 2017 (39 disinvitations), 2018 was much calmer (18 disinvitations). In 2019, we’ve seen the number of disinvitations climb back up to 33, but with an important twist. Between 2016 and 2019, the reported percentage of partisan disinvitations from the left declined from 87 percent to 58 percent, while the percentage of disinvitations from the right increased from 13 percent to 42 percent. In other words, the jump in speaker disinvitations from 2018 to 2019 is mostly a function of a growing tendency among right-leaning students to disinvite speakers, a tendency in line with the illiberal speech policies of the White House and conservative state legislatures.
When we account for these numbers in the context of more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, the language of Stephens and Noonan appears not just inflated, but myopically concerned with the unrepresentative events of a paper-thin slice of elite higher education, particularly its left-leaning students. Recent Gallup survey findings show that overall “College students strongly believe [78 percent] that creating an open learning environment should take precedence over creating a positive learning environment that attempts to protect students from hearing offensive or biased speech” and are more likely than U.S. adults (66 percent) to think this.
Given the sparse evidence for any kind of “free speech crisis” on campus, critics like Stephens and Noonan are partaking of the same kind of overreaction they purport to condemn. If student demands for gender-neutral pronouns chill speech, what are the implications of actual book burning? Imagine further the effects of an executive order on free speech from a president who called on the National Endowment for the Arts to stop supporting museums displaying “gross, degenerate stuff,” who called for the suspension of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, who praises authoritarians abroad. The silence of campus critics over the actual use of state power to chill speech only amplifies their hypocrisy.
~Aaron Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College.