Defending Free Speech

Michael Poliakoff writes that many campuses deserve attention for failing to defend the values of free expression.

June 6, 2018

The president of Augustana College would like us to believe that concern about intellectual freedom and freedom of expression is mostly a manufactured crisis. In a recent “Views” article, Steven C. Bahls provides many generalities to support his point. But if he is going to convince anyone that the alarm over silencing of speakers, “response teams” and “safe spaces” is a matter of crying wolf, he needs to address the facts.

Here is a partial list of well-documented incidents that he might want to review: University of Missouri (2015); University of Texas at Austin (2015); Yale University (2015); University of Northern Colorado (2016); Claremont McKenna College (2017); Evergreen State College (2017); Middlebury College (2017); Villanova University (2017); University of California, Irvine (2017); Lewis & Clark Law School (2018); University of Virginia (2018). Clearly, the University of California, Berkeley, had to spend $600,000 on security last year to protect Ben Shapiro because alarmists wanted to waste money fighting a chimera?

A Gallup survey in 2016 found that 27 percent of college students believe it’s OK to censor political speech if it offends a particular group, and 49 percent think they are right to keep the press away from their demonstrations if they “believe that the press will be unfair in its reporting.” Surveys that ACTA commissioned in various states in 2011, 2009 and 2008 revealed that 30 to 50 percent of students believed they needed to agree with their professor to get a good grade. Granted, this is self-reported information, but it deserves more than President Bahls’s breezy dismissal.

The problem of the devaluing of campus free speech and intellectual diversity will not go away by itself. The abridged list above indicates metastasis, which is likely to increase if university leaders remain mired in denial. Thus, a final point: if college administrators really believe that silencing a speaker is a serious offense, many more of them should follow the example of Hiram E. Chodosh at Claremont McKenna, who has had the backbone to deter future incidents by suspending students for such disruptions. Rather than hiding behind an exaggerated interpretation of FERPA or other veiled excuses, college leaders should demonstrate through their sanctions that building a campus culture of free expression sometimes requires taking firm action.

We stand by Joyce Lee Malcolm’s findings in our report “Building a Culture of Free Expression on the American College Campus.” Our college and university students, our faculties, and the nation deserve institutions where freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are zealously guarded and energetically fostered.

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Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


Michael Poliakoff

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