The kids are not all right, if you listen to the pundits: Left-wing college students, in their efforts to silence conservative speakers, are an increasing threat to free speech. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has depicted these campus protests as a “war on the liberal mind” — the “manifestation of a serious ideological challenge to liberalism” that is “necessary to defeat.” Bari Weiss frets in the New York Times that today’s university activists believe in free speech “only when it doesn’t offend them. Which is to say, they don’t believe in it at all.” And New York Times columnist David Brooks, concerned about students who recently sought to shut down controversial speakers such as Jordan Peterson, complains about the “student mobbists [who] manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.” Liberal values are at stake!
This controversy over campus free speech is eerily reminiscent of the “PC wars” of the early 1990s, when Americans attacked universities as elitist enclaves that sought to police the thought of those citizens who supposedly clung to racist, sexist, jingoistic and other atavistic attitudes. In policing language by implementing speech codes that prohibited hate speech, critics claimed, universities endangered free speech in the name of political correctness. President George H.W. Bush articulated this narrative concisely during a 1991 commencement address at the University of Michigan: The PC movement “replaces old prejudices with new ones,” he said. “It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”
Here’s the thing: College students have been known to protest. And this is okay. Their efforts for more than a generation have caused onlookers to fear the end of campus speech — but nothing like this has come to pass. In fact, college campuses are more tolerant than ever. The freakout is both predictable and wrong.
Free-speech hawk Nat Hentoff helped bring attention to what he saw as a campus chilling effect with a 1990 Washington Post essay. “Students at various campuses have told me that they have learned to keep their heretical ideas — on such subjects, for example, as affirmative action and abortion — to themselves rather than be treated as pariahs.” He wrote about a controversy at New York University’s law school, where students had refused to represent a man in a mock trial who was suing for sole custody of his young daughter because the child’s mother lived with her lesbian partner. One refusenik said, “Writing arguments on the side of the petitioner is hurtful to a group of people and thus hurtful to all of us.” Hentoff thought law students, of all people, should prioritize free speech, and he believed that the college kids were beginning to shield themselves from views they deemed offensive. He cast the fight over political correctness as a contest between civil liberties (individual rights) and civil rights (groups’ rights) and thought the university, where individuals sought truth, should prize the former over the latter.
A similar crisis was brewing at the University of Pennsylvania, where, one night in January 1993, freshman Eden Jacobowitz was frustrated by a boisterous group of black female students celebrating their sorority outside his dormitory. He yelled what sounded like a racial epithet out the window: “Shut up, you water buffalo. If you’re looking for a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” Jacobowitz, an observant Jew, pointed out that, translated into Hebrew, “water buffalo” was slang for a loud or rowdy person. But the university charged him with racial harassment, and Sheldon Hackney, Penn’s president, decided not to intervene, despite pressure from some faculty members who argued that the university’s response had a chilling effect on campus. Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer who co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free-speech advocacy group that was born of the “water buffalo” affair, has argued that Hackney’s actions did serious “damage to academic culture and free speech.”
Then, the next month, a conservative columnist named Gregory Pavlik argued in the student-run newspaper that more white people had been murdered by black people in American history than the number of blacks lynched by white mobs. Later, campus police arrested a group of black students for attempting to steal every copy of that day’s edition. But Hackney let them off with a slap on the wrist, prompting the paper to editorialize that Hackney had violated its First Amendment rights and threatened free speech — a plotline picked up by national critics. The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer described Hackney’s decision as “a perfect example of the failure of nerve — the failure of intellectual honesty, the failure to defend principle — that is the shame of American academic leadership.”
So when President Bill Clinton nominated Hackney to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities, critics lost it. Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, dubbed Hackney “the Pope of Political Correctness.” John Leo, who wrote about higher education for U.S. News & World Report, created a “Sheldon Award” for cowardly university presidents. (Hackney ultimately got the NEH job.)
All of this could have come verbatim from today’s conflicts. When, in response to violent protests, University of California at Berkeley officials canceled an event last year featuring provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, much was said about the irony that Berkeley had once helped birth the celebrated Free Speech Movement. In 1964, Mario Savio stood atop a police car to chant against officials who’d prevented students from promoting political causes on campus; in 2017, masked protesters attacked conservative students who merely wanted to listen to a controversial speaker. The “snowflake generation” strikes again! President Trump threatened to withdraw federal funds from Berkeley , and Yiannopoulos claimed on Facebook, “The Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”
But it has always been wrong — then and now — to set up a false dichotomy between civil liberties and the thing they are said to threaten: civil rights. Group protections are often a necessary precondition for individual liberties. The Berkeley students of 1964, many of whom had recently traveled south as part of Freedom Summer, were fighting for speech rights on campus to advance the rights of black Americans as a group.
A sign that these are not zero-sum values is that the quad is not meaningfully less open to free speech than it was a generation ago. Yes, there are some speech codes, and universities have worked to stifle racial and gender tensions as they have built more diverse student bodies in recent decades. And yes, in a few high-profile instances, conservative speakers (though rarely students or professors affiliated with the school in question) have been denied the opportunity to air their views.
But the alarmist case put forward by civil libertarians — that, as the American university has become more open to people of color and women, conservative perspectives have been censored — is empirically false. Poll after poll shows that universities are incredibly tolerant of divergent perspectives, much more so than arguably any other major institution in American culture. A recent survey of college students conducted by FIRE (the very group that has done the most to raise the alarm) indicates that the vast majority of students, including conservatives, feel relatively uninhibited in expressing their views. In response to a question about the appropriate reaction to a speaker who holds repugnant political views, only 2 percent chose “make noise during the speaker’s event so he/she can’t be heard,” and just 1 percent chose “use violent or disruptive actions to prevent the event from occurring.” Generally speaking, American attitudes regarding free speech have held steady, suggesting that college radicals are not altering national opinions of the First Amendment.
In short, outrage about threats to free speech is overblown. It’s also ahistorical: The college campus — where young people, finding their place in the world, discover that the social order is not as it should be — has always been a breeding ground for protest. Sometimes these student actions displease the self-important graybeards who believe it is their job to police student behavior. Whenever there is student protest, there will be those who see it as a threat to American norms. (Gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan won the support of a majority of California voters in the 1960s by calling student protests “contrary to our standards of human behavior.”) And sometimes the demonstrations are uncivil and illiberal. But the long view shows us that campus-level revolts are not a threat to liberal values like free speech.