‘Colleges defend free speech’ should not be a headline
As the academic year starts, we can expect to hear new tales of censorship at colleges and persecution of faculty who go astray from prescribed views. Much of the storytelling will take place on Fox News Channel and in other conservative outlets selling the notion that colleges have become islands of intolerance run by liberal thought police.
The reality is a whole lot tamer than that. A study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, found that only 1 percent of students would consider violently disrupting a guest speaker they find objectionable. Students who so engage should be arrested and booted out of school, but 1 percent is very small.
FIRE, which advocates for free speech in higher education, also found that 42 percent of student respondents said they might attend a speech by someone with whom they strongly disagree. I wish that percentage were higher but wonder how many older Fox News viewers would be that open-minded.
Though the notion that suppression of mainly conservative views on campus runs rampant is greatly overblown, there have been enough cases to cause concern. Headlines such as “Princeton Takes a Stand for Free Speech on Campus” are good news but also a recognition that such a stand could not be taken for granted.
Three years ago, Princeton faculty members — liberals and conservatives alike — adopted most of the “freedom of expression” principles issued by the University of Chicago some months before. “It is not the proper role of the university,” Princeton said in an official statement, “to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”
Neither Princeton nor Chicago deemed the freedom absolute. And that’s why the University of California, Berkeley, was justified in canceling the speaking engagement last year of the incendiary right-winger Milo Yiannopoulos. The night before, riots by who-knows-who caused considerable property damage.
Yiannopoulos is a professional provocateur who was running an alt-right entertainment business. He offered no redeeming social value worth forcing Berkeley to spend huge sums protecting him.
Berkeley College Republicans had obviously invited Yiannopoulos with the intention of pulling the left’s chains. It’s too bad that the left so often lets its chains be pulled.
When a truly repulsive speaker comes on campus, large noisy demonstrations are the most counterproductive response. They inflate the speaker’s importance and provide him or her enormous free publicity.
There are two sophisticated ways to register discontent. The best is mockery. “The devil . . . cannot endure to be mocked,” wrote Thomas More five centuries ago. A great recent example of mockery was that tuba player’s following a white supremacist march in South Carolina while pumping out Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
The second is to totally ignore the speaking event. The showman fears nothing more than a half-empty hall. Imagine if Berkeley students had given Yiannopoulos no mind, playing guitars on the lawn as he did his act inside.
It would also help to distinguish between offensive clown shows and presentations by conservatives who are merely controversial. Sure, someone like columnist Ben Shapiro may express some unpleasant views. But stopping him from speaking on campus as was done at DePaul University? That was insane.
It was unsurprising that about half the students participating in the FIRE survey said that they self-censor at times. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Thinking people waste their time debating those who lack basic facts. And there’s such a thing as time off; not everyone wants to have an argument while waiting for pizza.
So here’s to a new academic year of lively, informed debate. Want freedom from speech? Go meditate at a silent retreat.
* Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.