Culture & Society

The Long and Winding Road to Campus Illiberalism

Successful efforts to push back against previous limits on free speech at universities should give today’s speech advocates hope

Published by
Tevi Troy

Free speech is under assault on America’s campuses, as cancel culture and the woke mob strive to stifle any points of disagreement. Yet free speech issues on campuses, while always worrisome, are not necessarily new.

More than a generation ago, the great Irving Kristol observed that American campuses are islands of intolerance in the sea of diversity. If Kristol were around today, though, he would probably have to amend his observation along the lines that campuses are now continents of intolerance in a shrinking sea of freedom.

Free speech is so devalued on campuses today that there is little cost to those seeking to squelch unfashionable views. When MIT recently canceled a speech by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot because he had questioned non-merit-based hiring, the left saw nothing wrong with MIT’s illiberal action. In a widely noted comment in an article about the incident, The New York Times quoted Williams College geoscience professor Phoebe Cohen as saying, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”

To dismiss the tradition of intellectual debate as some kind of vestige of a white male era seemed to many a nail in the coffin of the very concept of free speech and open inquiry. Unfortunately, this recent episode is only the latest of many similar incidents.

In 2017, a violent mob prevented the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, injuring a liberal professor who had been escorting Murray in the process. Other speakers prevented from speaking on campuses in the past decade include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As free speech on campus defenders Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have described it, “[a] movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

The ACLU, once the stalwart defender of free speech for all, even the unpopular and unsavory, has backed away from the concept, especially when it comes to campus-imposed speech limitations. According to Ben Wizner, head of the ACLU’s free speech project, “At the A.C.L.U., free speech is one of 12 or 15 different values.” This should come as a big surprise to those who long recognized that free speech was the organization’s primary value. With the ACLU largely absent on the issue, a new organization—the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—has emerged, albeit without the ACLU’s long tradition or name recognition. FIRE is needed because, in The New York Times’ characterization, the ACLU is now “AWOL on campus.”

Looking Back

This sad situation, with many progressives not only refusing to defend free speech, but often leading the charge to restrict it, is a long way from the left’s long tradition of taking risks to protect speech on American campuses. In the past, the real threat to free speech in higher education came from the right, specifically the anti-communist right. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was legitimate reason to be concerned about communism as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin actively sought to subvert the West, and also ran aggressive intelligence operations in the U.S. Still, the anti-communist forces, especially the demagogic senator Joe McCarthy, took things too far and helped create a stifling atmosphere on campuses.

There were, however, some who bucked the prevailing trend. At Sarah Lawrence, for example, the administration had passed a 1938 Statement on Academic Freedom. In the 1950s, anti-communists from the Americanism Committee of the Westchester County American Legion put pressure on Sarah Lawrence for employing alleged communists as professors. In response to these attacks, the Board of Trustees reaffirmed the 1938 statement. The ACLU, among others, stood with Sarah Lawrence during this period, and the college at the time stood out for its commitment to free speech.

Another well-known incident took place at Harvard in the 1950s. Harvard had a long-standing tradition of supporting free speech, but it was increasingly coming under attack because of the proliferation of leftists on its faculty. Former Harvard teacher Robert Gorham Davis gave the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of 11 Harvard faculty members who had belonged to the same Communist Party cell as Davis when he was at the school.

By this time, physics professor Wendell Furry was the only one of the 11 named who was still at Harvard. Furry testified before the committee and denied that he was a communist, although he did appear to have previously been a member of the cell that Davis had identified. Harvard refused to fire him, and he remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1977.

Despite these pockets of resistance, the McCarthy investigations did chill speech on campuses in the 1950s. According to one story, physics students at the University of Chicago circulated a petition to get a Coke machine in the physics lab, but the students were reportedly so wary of making a fuss that no one was willing to sign it. Things warmed up in the 1960s, though, in large part because of civil rights protests.

Perhaps the most famous campus protest took place at the University of California at Berkeley. In the autumn of 1964, students protesting in favor of civil rights met resistance. A graduate student named Jack Weinberg was arrested for the crime of manning a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) booth on campus. Weinberg’s action may seem innocuous to us today, but it was a bold step then.

Mario Savio at Berkeley in 1966.

Protests erupted in response to Weinberg’s arrest. The most lasting image of these protests is of a Queens-born student named Mario Savio, who captivated the crowd with his eloquent remarks in favor of free speech from on top of a police car. The administration eventually lost patience with the protests and arrested hundreds of students, but the students had won a moral victory in their effort to cement free speech as a widely accepted value.

Berkeley’s free speech movement set the tone for future 1960s protests, and those who sought to ban speech would be on the defensive going forward. For a while, anyway.

For the next few decades, those who favored free speech on campus maintained the upper hand. Indeed, the left continued to celebrate the free speech movement. Since the strongest efforts in favor of free speech had come from the left, the defense of free speech became part of the lore of the left. The right lost interest in restricting speech, especially as McCarthyism fell strongly out of favor across the political spectrum. This was largely a golden age for freedom of speech on American campuses.

By the 1980s, though, a new form of intolerance had emerged in the guise of political correctness (PC). Writers like Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza chronicled instances of arguments against affirmative action being disallowed and vague accusations of “racism” or “sexism” silencing well-known professors. What was strange was how this new intolerance for discussion and debate had come from the left, which only a generation earlier had celebrated free speech as one of its highest values. As the historian Gil Troy wrote in The Age of Clinton, a history of the 1990s, the free speech New Left “had morphed into the PC Left, so obsessed with identity politics and cultural control it proposed speech codes on campus.”

Still, the left did not entirely lose its love of free speech. PC generated a backlash, initially on the right, but then in some corners of the left as well. Liberal icons like Irving Howe, Eugene Genovese and Arthur Schlesinger criticized PC’s excesses, including its assault on free speech. By the mid-1990s, thanks in part to this bipartisan backlash, PC had become a punchline, derided in Hollywood movies like “PCU” and mocked by liberals like Bill Maher on his show, the pointedly named “Politically Incorrect.”

Free speech seemed safe, once again, but only for a time. In the 2010s, limitations on free speech cropped up again, at first in the form of a cancellation of conservative speakers on a number of campuses. By this time, Howe, Genovese and Schlesinger were dead, and the number of liberals willing to stand up for free speech was much smaller. As noted above, even the vaunted ACLU was unwilling to take on the defense of free speech on campus, and American campuses became some of the least free places when it came to self-expression.

This unfortunate moment, however, is only a snapshot in time. As this brief survey shows, free speech has been a fluid question on American campuses over the last century, and its ideological supporters have shifted as well. Supporters of free expression should not give up hope, and those who would limit speech should not be so sure that their current restrictionism will spare them from a backlash.

Whatever happens, revisiting this issue in a decade or two will almost certainly reveal a changed landscape. If supporters of free speech can push back successfully, as they have in the past, we can get back to a place where campuses are, as they should be, committed to free speech, free thought and open inquiry.

Tevi Troy

Tevi Troy is a visiting fellow with the Mercatus Center’s Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange. He is also a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and served as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from August 2007 to January 2009.

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