Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire and investor George Soros. (Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press)

THE FRONT line between liberal values of democracy and the darker forces of authoritarianism can often be found far from government offices, in a civic association or church hall, a newsroom or university classroom. Witness the effort by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary to close the Central European University in Budapest. The school, founded and funded by philanthropist and financier George Soros, has been an anchor for the study of freedom in lands long tormented by tyranny.

Mr. Orban, who has vowed to wipe out liberal values in Hungary, tabled legislation in parliament that, if passed, would place onerous restrictions on the university, founded in 1991 at the collapse of communism to train scholars and others in the building of open societies that respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law. Now a graduate school with 1,440 enrolled students and 370 faculty from more than 130 nations, the university grants degrees accredited in both Hungary and the United States and, in the words of President and Rector Michael Ignatieff, stands “for open minds and open frontiers at a time when political forces of anger, exclusion and closure are in the ascendant.”

That is enough to put it in the crosshairs of Mr. Orban, a right-wing champion of barbed-wire fenced borders and authoritarianism modeled on Russia, China and Turkey. His government tabled legislation, to take effect next February, that would require all foreign universities in Hungary to have a physical campus in their home countries; CEU is accredited in New York but has only one campus, in Budapest. All other 27 universities covered by the new legislation have campuses at home. “As we see it, this is legislation targeted at one institution and one institution only,” Mr. Ignatieff told students and faculty in a letter. “It is discriminatory. It strikes at the heart of what we have been doing at CEU for over two decades.” Mr. Ignatieff said the legislation “would make it impossible for CEU to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Hungary,” and warned that it is “a university whose freedom is in danger.”

CEU is at the fault line of an intensifying contest between democracy and illiberal rule around the globe. Mr. Orban is taking a page from playbooks in Russia and China on how to suffocate civil society. In January, his ruling party floated a proposal to crack down on nongovernmental organizations funded by Mr. Soros, including those promoting human rights and transparency, although the bill has yet to be published.

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, Mr. Orban, then an anti-communist student leader, took a Soros scholarship to study at Oxford. It seems Mr. Orban has forgotten the lessons, so obvious then, about Eastern Europe’s communist rulers, whose demise was heartily celebrated by people sick of arbitrary rule and hungry for the kind of freedom that Central European University was founded to succor.