(Washington Post illustration/ )

There’s a story conservatives have been telling about the decline of free speech on campuses, and it goes like this: America has spiraled downward from a golden age, when the groves of academe were precincts of whole-hearted civil freedom, to today, when hypersensitive left-wing students, obsessed by race- and gender-based “microaggressions,” clamor for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

Vice President Pence told this story at Notre Dame’s commencement in May: “Far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness, all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech. These all-too-common practices are destructive of learning and the pursuit of knowledge, and they are wholly outside the American tradition.”

Wholly outside? The vice president didn’t do his homework. Americans may like to think of their institutions of higher learning as grounded in classically liberal ideas, as places where, in the words of John Stuart Mill, “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” But in practice, American campuses have rarely been quite so welcoming to nonconforming views. Speech has gotten faculty fired and students arrested; it has been met not only with dirty looks but also with heckling and sometimes violence.

What’s true is that old forms of censorship — by administrative fiat, governing boards, government regulations and prosecutors — are less common than they once were. Today, it’s more likely that the call to rule out obnoxious views comes from students. And yet one way or the other, freedom is embattled. Golden ages only show up in rearview mirrors, and even then, objects may be farther away than they appear.

If we look back over the past 100 years, perhaps the lowest tolerance for academic freedom has coincided with war and global tensions. The enemies of dissent frequently invoked menaces from abroad as they clamped down on speech.

For example, in 1917, Columbia University, where I teach, held two professors guilty of “disloyalty” and fired them for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. The following year, 12 members of the faculty at the University of Nebraska were made to go before “loyalty trials” convened by the state-designated Nebraska Council of Defense. Although all were cleared, the university proceeded to force out three of them for “inciting public criticism” of the school.

Likewise, the Cold War, at its peak, fueled clamor for uniformity. In 1950, 31 professors at the University of California were fired after refusing to sign a loyalty oath.

The pressures could be public — helped along by the FBI and congressional investigators — or behind office doors. The eminent sociologist Robert Bellah characterized the behavior of Harvard University administrators in the mid-1950s as “discreet collaboration with McCarthyism with the primary concern of avoiding criticism.” In the fall of 1954, dean McGeorge Bundy told Bellah, who’d belonged to the Communist Party as an undergraduate, that his graduate fellowship would be in jeopardy if he didn’t fully cooperate with the FBI, including revealing the names of other party members. Bellah was somewhat surprised when Harvard offered him a teaching position the following spring. But it came with the proviso that “if, during Mr. Bellah’s year of service as instructor, he should refuse to testify about any past association with Communists, the Corporation would not look with favor on any proposal for his reappointment.” Bellah turned down the job in favor of a postdoctoral fellowship in Montreal. He joined the Harvard faculty two years later, without the proviso.

McCarthyism loosened its grip, but under official protection, white supremacy reigned supreme in the Deep South. In 1956, as law professor Geoffrey R. Stone has written, the University of Mississippi canceled an invitation to a pro-integration Episcopal speaker after critics complained that hosting him would be “like coddling a viper in your own bosom.” A year later, the governor of South Carolina made a private all-black college fire three professors, one black and two white, for opposing racial segregation.

Although Jim Crow was enforced top-down, white students jumped in enthusiastically. For instance, when the University of Mississippi was forced to admit James Meredith as its first black student in 1962, students joined a racist mob of thousands. (When Meredith graduated the next year, he was still being protected by U.S. marshals.)

Even in the North, radical students were targeted by bullies and prosecutors. At Indiana University in 1963, three members of a socialist student group that had hosted a talk advocating that blacks win their legal and political rights “one way or another” were prosecuted for advocating the overthrow of the state government.

Of course, students helped to free campus speech in the ’60s, ushering in perhaps the closest that American higher education has come to a golden age of speech. Campuses tolerated some of the most loathsome speakers without riotous responses. In 1963, the Harvard-Radcliffe Democratic Club sponsored a speech by George Wallace, the white supremacist governor of Alabama. In 1966, a group at Brown University invited American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell (a Brown alum) to speak on the charged subject of white backlash. In his speech, he denounced “international Jews” for supporting “communism,” promoting “race mixing” and destroying America’s culture through control of the media. He complained that when he “criticized Jews” he was “compared to an anti-Semite” and “subjected to terrorism” by “bums,” “beatniks” and “queers.”

But such speeches were sideshows. Those who attended fringe lectures could bask in the experience of satisfying their curiosity, learning something about the human condition, feeling the pleasures of righteous indignation and flattering themselves on their tolerance. Elsewhere, schools remained resistant to liberal and radical speech. In 1965, a student group at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma invited Students for a Democratic Society to debate the war in Vietnam. The administration refused to permit such a debate on university property. The antiwar speaker — me — had to talk at an off-campus coffeehouse.

When people talk about the late ’60s and early ’70s as a golden age of campus speech, they sometimes note that blatant firings and blacklists were relatively rare. Opposition to the Vietnam War did on occasion result in professors being squeezed out of work — at Yale, the University of Hawaii and the University of Nebraska. But as one professor, Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University, himself a dissenter, later wrote: “The idea and practices of academic freedom protected a lot of dissent and resistance during those years. Few of the dissenters were fired, almost none de-tenured. Many lost jobs before tenure, then found other jobs.” The abundance of jobs limited the damage.

Those years also included some murderous episodes in the history of American campuses. At the outer reaches of repression, in 1970, government forces met unarmed protesters with gunfire, with National Guardsmen killing four unarmed demonstrators at Kent State and police opening fire on a student dormitory and killing two at Jackson State.

During the ’50s and ’60s, it was left-wing speech that was suppressed — notably without any conservative civil libertarian outcry. In the ’70s and ’80s, a “linguistic turn” swept the social sciences and the humanities: an emphasis on the importance of language in social life and philosophy, from which some activists argued that the silencing of dissent had been baked into everyday speech. Taken-for-granted language was not innocent; it exerted power over the social groups that were increasingly represented on campus. Speech as such no longer deserved protection. “Freedom” was just another word for masked domination.

By the late ’80s and early ’90s, conservatives and some liberals objected that a new “dictatorship of virtue” had come to rule campuses. The traditional conservative theme of foreign menace was refreshed with the charge — not altogether manufactured — that “Western civilization” was the left’s new target. As “straight,” “white” and “male” became terms of opprobrium in multicultural and feminist quarters, “political correctness” came to cover anything from Stalinist-style censorship to strenuous anti-racism, even as the opponents of “correctness” were not always scrupulous when they enforced their own orthodoxies. Though unreliable polemicists such as Dinesh D’Souza made hay with extravagant accusations against “illiberal education,” some charges were valid, even if it was people like D’Souza who made them. Campuses began to draw up speech codes, often clumsily, aiming to keep “hate speech” at bay.

Even then, the censorious mood was more a subterranean rumble than an outright crusade to crush dissent. But selective outrage mushroomed, especially with a swelling assumption that to speak in favor of the existence of Israel was a cardinal violation of left-wing orthodoxy. With the dawning of the 21st century, arguments against free speech as such became commonplace, and passions rose to the point of outright violence. Though racist and social-media assaults (nooses, swastikas and even death threats) have erupted against left-wing faculty and students, the balance of censoriousness has turned radically. Before this year, I doubt that we would have seen an opinion editor of Berkeley’s Daily Californian maintain, in defense of violent “black bloc” protests against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, that “asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act.” So it came to pass in March that a speech at Middlebury College by conservative scholar Charles Murray, whom critics call a racist and eugenicist, precipitated a riot in which a protester assaulted and injured the professor who invited Murray. I saw an anti-Murray demonstrator at Columbia later that month holding a sign saying “NO FREE SPEECH.” Thus do some on the left coat a deeply nasty tradition with a populist gloss.

Rejecting free speech only undercuts the left. And from a liberal point of view, there’s an irony that goes largely unnoticed. The intense hatred of racial “microaggressions” is flourishing on campuses just as state and national Republican officials are zealously practicing macroaggressions: infringing on voting rights, affirmative action and progressive advances in criminal justice. While shortsighted activists focus on slights (real, imagined and arguable) at hand, the political powers that be are indisputably rolling back equal rights directly and profoundly where most people live — off campus. Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter court easy martyrdom as President Trump’s legions cheer them on. When defenders of racial equality take the bait and obsess about a few loathsome provocations, they plunge into their adversaries’ trap, diverted from the political arena where democracy and equality badly need them.

Twitter: @toddgitlin

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