Chilling Free Speech on Campuses


Over the past 12 years, I’ve been covering the contempt for free speech and a free press on many of the nation’s campuses. Students—black, Latino, and white—steal and burn newspapers that offend them. The Student Press Law Center has cited 205 such thefts—and occasional bonfires—since it started compiling a list in 1993.

Encouraging these vigilante students are many administrators and faculty members who remain silent for fear of being called racist or insensitive. This cowardly passivity even includes many members of law school faculties and professors of political science, who presumably teach the history of the Constitution.

Several years ago, I asked a professor at Brown University—whose writings on the First Amendment I admire—why he didn’t say anything publicly about the campus’s rampant political correctness. This, at Brown, is the orthodox code of opinion—as religious fundamentalism is at Bob Jones University.

The professor snapped at me: “I keep my classroom open to all ideas!”

When I was invited to speak at Cornell—on, of all subjects, the First Amendment—I asked at a faculty luncheon why they had been silent when issues of the conservative student newspaper, the Cornell Review, were twice stolen and thrown into celebratory bonfires on campus.

The only answer was from a blustering Cornell public relations official who said the offended students, after all, had a right to freedom of expression. But later, a dean stopped me and said softly, “I’m glad you said that about this chilling of free speech on campus—because I can’t.”

But finally, a horde of university administrators have spoken out—to denounce the editors of an independent student newspaper, The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus at Madison. During the national furor over David Horowitz’s ad attacking reparations to blacks for the centuries of slavery here, and the subsequent and continuing racism, The Badger Herald was one of the few student newspapers that ran the ad.

Angry students marched on The Badger Herald, demanded the resignation of its editors, and insisted that the paper run a counter-ad by the protesters calling The Badger Herald racist. The editors should have run that counter-ad. Any newspaper, on or off campus, has the right to refuse any ad; but if you can run one side of the issue, you ought to run an ad for the other side—especially if it’s criticizing you.

Apart from that mistake, The Badger Herald, which I’ve been familiar with for years, does believe that all our liberties and rights flow from the First Amendment.

On May 7, The Badger Herald ran another ad, the likes of which I have never seen before in a campus newspaper. The Capital Times in Madison—one of the country’s liveliest daily newspapers—reported this historic anti-free-speech event:

“More than 70 UW-Madison administrators signed an advertisement . . . in The Badger Herald this morning criticizing its editors for running a controversial ad arguing against slavery reparations.” Among the signers were such “prominent names as admissions director Robert Seltzer [and] Dean of Students Alicia Chavez.”

Titled “Improved Campus Climate: A Statement,” the administrators’ ad recognized that The Badger Herald had a constitutional right to run the Horowitz provocation, this being a public university. But these university officials added sternly that “Freedom asserted without care and thought for others can become destructive to the community and our joint humanity.” The administrators stressed that they would continue to educate everyone on campus, including students, on “asserting our precious freedoms conscientiously.”

In an appropriately stinging answer, the editorial board of The Badger Herald denied that the First Amendment “is an obstacle” to the ad’s signers’ “attempt to educate. . . . The administration should not try to stifle speech as its ad in today’s paper intends. . . . We strongly disagree . . . that problems at UW-Madison stem from too much speech; in reality, this campus suffers from too little speech. In addition to lacking diversity of skin color, we severely lack tolerance for a diversity of ideas.”

The next day, The Badger Herald ran a letter from several UW faculty members. Among them was political science professor Donald A. Downs, who should get an American Civil Liberties Union award for his longtime courage and persistence in defending the diversity of ideas, on and off campus. He has, for example, successfully opposed the University of Wisconsin’s speech codes for students and faculty. In the letter, Downs and the other signatories said of the ad signed by more than 70 administrators, “This appears to be nothing less than an attempt to create a chilling effect on expression.”

And in an article in The Capital Times, Downs wrote, “The Horowitz controversy has laid bare the cultural and intellectual splits that rivet the contemporary university. Whereas The [Badger] Herald won respect for standing up for its First Amendment rights in the face of real pressure, the recent ad taken out by administrators has upped the ante, revealing the strength of a competing worldview that places sensitivity on a plane even with, or even higher than, the ethic of free speech and thought. Of course, this conflict has been part of the educational landscape for over a decade now.”

But, Downs added, “never have such a large number of administrators deemed it necessary to take out an ad decrying the negative consequences of free speech.” Universities, Downs noted, retreated from freedom of speech during the McCarthy era. Now, “The same process of change could be taking place in this era as various advocates of diversity and racial justice express an ethic of higher education that is critical of the color-blind logic of . . . free inquiry. Free speech is valued except when it is deemed detrimental to social justice or group esteem.” But, as Al Sharpton can tell you—and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could before him—there can be no social justice without the free inquiry that exists only because of free speech.

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