Is Free Speech Under Fire on Campus?

By | May 13, 2016
2016 May-June, Big Questions

A Moment Symposium


With Eugene Volokh / Shaun R. Harper / Marshall Breger 
Anna Joseph Hanna Rosin Greg Lukianoff / Josh Freeman 
Mark Yudof Zareena Grewal Eric Alterman Kim Colby 
Heather Weaver Jonathan Chait


Interviews by Sarah Breger, Anna Isaacs, Sala Levin

Over the past few months, a series of student protests has erupted across the United States on campuses such as Amherst, Dartmouth, Ithaca, the University of Missouri and Yale. While the specific spark of each protest has differed, their substance has been of like mind: Students are contending that their administrations have neglected an obligation to address bigotry, discrimination and intolerance, and specifically racism. Pressured to respond to such concerns, some universities have taken steps to discourage or proscribe “hateful” or “hurtful” speech. In other cases, faculty and administrators have been forced out, speakers have been disinvited and buildings have been renamed. Further complicating matters are questions about the First Amendment rights of religious minorities and new tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students and organizations. For some, today’s is an era of intellectual intolerance and so-called political correctness, of illiberal censorship of opposing or unpopular opinion. Others paint a different picture, one in which marginalized voices that have been silenced for too long are finally being heard and accommodated. So: Is free speech threatened on college campuses? Moment asks an array of scholars, university administrators and students to weigh in. This print symposium is an expanded version of a March 2016 live symposium produced in partnership with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.


Freedom of speech: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other rights, the right to free expression or “speech” without undue government restrictions, and applies to public university campuses. Various Supreme Court rulings have sought to clarify what constitutes such speech—the subject of debate to this day—including Tinker v. Des Moines, when the Court declared that students “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”

Microaggression: Psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined “microaggression” in the 1970s to describe the “subtle, cumulative mini-assault” that he said constitutes “the substance of today’s racism.” It has entered the national conversation to mean brief, subtle verbal or nonverbal exchanges—often unintended—that send denigrating messages because of the recipient’s group membership. These can include assuming that Jews are good with money or calling a person of color “articulate,” implying that he or she is exceptional. 

Political correctness (P.C.): Political correctness, a concept that went mainstream in the 1990s after the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, pejoratively characterizes language, behavior or policy that goes to supposedly extreme lengths not to offend, exclude or discriminate. Critics bemoan and mock its alleged limitations on speech or debate, while its accused practitioners call it a diversionary tactic—a misleading code term for espousing progressive values or opposing injustice.

Trigger warning: Trigger warnings originated on the Internet, where communities labeled content that dealt with potentially traumatic subjects (such as war, sexual assault and child abuse), particularly to forewarn sufferers of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Many college professors have adopted the practice of applying trigger warnings to class material.

White privilege: “Privilege” in this context refers to the benefits bestowed upon individuals who resemble those who have historically held positions of power. Wellesley College women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh popularized the concept in the 1980s with a list of 46 white privileges (“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”). Beneficiaries of privilege—which can come from wealth, heterosexuality, being able-bodied, etc.—don’t ask for but nonetheless are said to enjoy its advantages, large and small.

Safe space: The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s used the term “safe space” to describe “consciousness-raising” groups that shared political ideals. Today, it is often used to describe designated campus areas or communities in which discussions and interactions—often centered around such topics as sexism or racism—are required to be respectful, nonjudgmental and nonthreatening.

Title IX: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault.

Eugene Volokh

When university administrators say they expect “the fullest sanctions” for pro-Trump and anti-illegal-alien sidewalk chalking at a university (University of California, San Diego) that expressly permits sidewalk chalking, you know that free speech is under threat at university campuses. When the University of Minnesota’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office investigates a flyer that depicts the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed “Je Suis Charlie” cover in promoting a faculty-organized panel about the Charlie Hebdo massacre—and then calls on the dean to publicly disavow the flyer as “hurtful”—you know that free speech is under threat at university campuses. When people call for “safe spaces” at universities and mean safety not from violence but from offensive ideas, you know that free speech is under threat at university campuses.

The premise of the modern American university is that no one should be protected from ideas. Some ideas may be wrong, but we can’t tell that they’re wrong unless we are free to debate them. And we can’t have confidence that our beliefs are right unless we know that they are always subject to criticism and must continue to withstand that criticism. That is just as true of ideas about religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, disability and other identity attributes as it is of ideas about science and morality more broadly.

And as Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wisely noted, “the freedoms of speech, press, petition and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.” Power given to government officials to suppress some offensive ideas quickly grows to cover other ideas as well. And, to turn to Justice Robert Jackson, “There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent.” That is true of public debate generally; it should be true for debate at universities as well.

Eugene Volokh is a professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches free speech law, religious freedom law and church-state relations law, among other topics. He is the founder and co-author of the legal blog “The Volokh Conspiracy.”


Shaun R. Harper

The question that I continue to grapple with is: Whose free speech are we talking about? My research is largely on people of color on predominantly white campuses around the country. For more than a decade now, I’ve repeatedly heard people of color and women say that they can’t give voice to the racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression that they experience on their campuses for fear of retaliation, or for fear that people would shut them down or marginalize them.

Following the anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri and the wave of student activism that ensued, I think we’re finally seeing people of color speak out. Suddenly, we are seeing oppressed groups speak up for themselves and what they have long experienced. It would be really useful to pay attention to who are the noisemakers suggesting that free speech is under attack. You will see very little racial diversity in that group. It could be that they are not being constantly confronted with racism, sexism and homophobia. Perhaps there’s no firsthand familiarity with or understanding of the kinds of experiences that compel students to ask for safe spaces and for trigger warnings and various forms of institutional accountability. If I were a person who hadn’t had these kinds of experiences, they wouldn’t resonate with me, either.

Students of color aren’t saying, “Shut up, white person. Don’t speak. I don’t want to engage with you.” In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Various marginalized groups are actually inviting their oppressors into conversation with them to enhance their understanding of their oppressive acts and to enhance their understanding of what oppression means and what it looks like. In fact, they’re saying, “I invite you to have a conversation with me. You may actually learn something.”

Shaun R. Harper is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a professor of education, Africana studies and gender studies. He is the president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.


Marshall Breger

The short answer is yes. We have seen a sea change in the attitude of colleges and universities toward controversy in general and controversial speech in particular. After World War II, the conventional understanding was that the role of the universities was to promote free speech, where students explored ideas, many of them controversial or radical. And based generally on the views of John Stuart Mill, that you responded to bad speech with more speech. While there were political efforts to clamp down on certain controversial speech, like left-wing speech, in general, universities remained true to their “responsibilities.”

This has changed in recent years. There’s been a kind of flip side to what the university is supposed to do. Students want to feel comfortable and safe. They don’t want to be challenged. They want “safe spaces.” And as a result, they don’t want activities on campuses that they find offensive or, indeed, hurtful. Certainly everyone has the right to be safe from physical altercations. But the notion of comfort and safety goes far beyond that.

Universities have tried to develop civility codes. The problem is that civility codes too often have become a cover for restricting speech. Many of the public university codes precluding speech that offends other people were rejected by the courts in the 1980s and 1990s. But they have returned with a vengeance.

You have the growing attention to so-called microaggressions. You have the growth of disinvitations, where politicians or comedians have had the dubious honor of being invited to and then disinvited from campus events because of student complaints. Some comedians won’t even play campus venues anymore. And most importantly, you have restrictions on speech in classes, where students ask for trigger warnings before the class enters areas of discussion that might upset them, or students seek to be excused from studying subjects that they don’t feel comfortable learning. We have occasions where students in law school don’t want to study rape law because they’re upset by it. How can they be criminal lawyers?

And you have the problem of faculty afraid to speak their political views outside the classroom. You have the case of Steven Salaita, whose offer of a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was rescinded after his tweets about Israel were uncovered. I can’t speak to his qualities as a professor of Native American studies, but his peers seemed to think highly of him. His tweets were disgusting and evinced no sense of civility and very little political maturity or judgment. But his private opinions were not connected to his academic work.

We are seeing a deterioration of academic freedom because of this notion of sensitivity. To be sensitive to others is a good thing. Insensitivity can be a reason for the administration to call you out, or for your colleagues to call you out. But insensitivity should not be a reason to censor speech.

Marshall Breger is a professor of law at The Catholic University of America. A Moment columnist, he recently moderated “First Amendment on College Campuses: Speech, Religion, Sexuality, Gender,” a panel discussion cosponsored by Moment and the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.


Anna Joseph

Not in the way most people think. Certain populations, such as people of color (especially Palestinians) and sexual assault survivors, have never been allowed to speak out; when they have, they’ve been punished for it. Kimberly Theidon was denied tenure by Harvard University because of her support for sexual assault victims, and Steven Salaita had his job offer withdrawn by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of personal tweets criticizing the Israeli government’s assault on Gaza in 2014. There still exists as much pressure as ever for those challenging the white supremacist patriarchy to shut up. For any interested readers, there are fabulous critical race theory and feminist legal theory articles explaining the ways in which conceptions of “free speech” have long been used as a tool to further oppress the oppressed, while marginalized communities have always known they were never allowed to speak.

Now, though, students around the world are pushing back against practices that disproportionately affect minority groups, asking their educators to be more inclusive. Before, oppressed populations just tried to survive their time at conservative institutions; now they seek to change those institutions. As literary critic Parul Sehgal wrote in a New York Times article discussing resilience, “Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?”

The conservatives who promote the idea that students seek some kind of mandate against speech are creating a straw man argument and a red herring, distracting from conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and classism. For example, as many professors have argued, warnings are given before vivid war and rape scenes to accommodate veterans and sexual assault survivors suffering from PTSD precisely because one is about to teach that material. Yet those in the majority would rather have conversations about phantom speech threats than address what students are actually voicing. There’s an expression: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Anna Joseph graduated in May from Harvard Law School, where she served as co-president of HLS Lambda, an LGBTQ organization.


Hanna Rosin

Whenever I find myself scolding the youth, I take a step back. It’s not that I think they know what they are doing, but often they are stumbling blindly toward a place that none of us can see yet. So, yes, when I hear some of these extreme stories about self-appointed student censors, I believe them to be ridiculous, and detrimental to education and the pursuit of truth. And when I hear about certain extreme Title IX cases, they sound like a perversion of justice. But I’m not alarmed yet. I am still just trying to figure out what’s happening.

There has been a perceptual shift in how we see language. Words are now seen as acts of violence, and kids describe them the same way they would a minor mugging: They are microaggressions. Not quite the same as a physical assault, but still in the same sphere as physical pain. The easy thing to say is that these kids have grown up sheltered and can’t bear controversy. That they are overly sensitive and view everything through the lens of their emotional pain. That they are so exquisitely sensitive that noise can pierce their paper-thin skin.

But maybe this generation (like earlier ones) only appears to be absurd, but collectively knows what it’s after. Maybe it’s actually about inclusiveness, about forcing people to reckon with the fact that there are subconscious choices that we make in language that, by their nature, exclude a lot of people. Maybe language is the last place that holds our unconscious racism or sexism or whatever it is that we’re worried about.

Hanna Rosin is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a founder and editor at DoubleX, Slate’s women’s section. She is the author of The End of Men.


Greg Lukianoff

Those of us familiar with the threats to liberty on campus have been wondering, “Where has everybody been? This has been bad for a long time.” If we want freedom of speech to endure, we have to fight all three of the forces that threaten it: administrative inertia, federal overreach and, increasingly, negative student attitudes about free speech.

For most of my career, the major threat to free speech on campus came not from the students or the faculty but from the ever-expanding armies of administrators. In 2007, 75 percent of the top universities surveyed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintained policies that clearly prohibited substantial amounts of protected speech. Some administrators are highly ideological. Others simply want peace and quiet on their watch. But most were taught by the risk management industry to be frightened of the possibility of being sued in even frivolous antidiscrimination cases or, worst of all, being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

This trend has been exacerbated by a newly aggressive OCR. In 2013, for example, OCR proffered a new definition of “sexual harassment” that took out all the safeguards the Supreme Court had put in place to protect citizens’ due process and free speech rights. It defined “sexual harassment” as merely “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal” conduct, whether a reasonable person would have been offended by such speech or not. Then, in OCR’s 2013 settlement with the University of Montana, the new blueprint expanded beyond just sex-related expression to speech offensive to 17 different categories, including “creed,” “genetic information,” “age” and “political ideas.” The blueprint threatens to transform any speech that anyone finds unwelcome into punishable harassment.

Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate and Freedom from Speech.


Josh Freeman

Back in late November, Princeton made national headlines because students were protesting the use of the name Woodrow Wilson for the school of public policy and a residential college, as well as making other demands, such as cultural competency training for faculty and a diversity course requirement for all students. It led to a 33-hour sit-in, which led to our university president agreeing to explore whether the university could meet some of the demands. The rhetoric the protestors were using was very dismissive of other points of view. There wasn’t a debate. It was just a group of students trying to force their own ideals on everyone else.

Our group, the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, came about in the wake of this. We thought a lot of the demands were counter to what a university should be, and wrote a letter to our university president saying so. We don’t describe ourselves as liberal or as conservative. We’re just a general group that’s trying to defend free speech. The concept of free speech is neither liberal nor conservative. It’s an American concept that we should all hold dear. Diversity is being able to include people of all different backgrounds, all different beliefs, all different ways of thinking. If you’re attacking certain people’s opinions and certain people’s thoughts, you’re making campuses inclusive only of what you want them to include.

Our campus honors Woodrow Wilson not for his racist legacy but for what he did for our institution and for our country. Likewise, requiring cultural competency training is counter to the idea of faculty being able to have their own discussions about diversity and inclusion, which you can’t if you’re told to think about or acknowledge some aspect of a culture in a certain way. It’s been hinted at that I’m a traitor. As an African American, I’ve been called a token. But I’m not going to change my ideals just because I’m a member of a certain race.

Josh Freeman is a sophomore mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Princeton University and co-founder of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition.

“Carefully crafted non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies can both protect students from abuse while preserving core free speech rights.”—Heather Weaver

Mark Yudof

I’ve been very disturbed by what I’ve perceived on campuses today. There’s a feeling among some misinformed people that the First Amendment is a subterfuge for oppression and racism. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a very important democratic principle by which we have robust conversation and reach informed decisions. For Jewish people, African American people and others, free speech has been a critical weapon in securing civil liberties and rights.

At Vassar, we heard from a slew of professors that to condemn anti-Semitic speech is a violation of academic freedom, that we were trying to silence the speaker. Far from it. I’m a fan of open discussion and debate. When students invited Louis Farrakhan to speak when I was president of the University of California (UC), I didn’t try to keep him from speaking; I issued a statement that I disagreed with him. To me, when you say that speech is bad speech, you counter it with good speech, but the mere act of condemning speech is not a violation of First Amendment rights. Imagine if David Duke came to a campus and the president condemned him—no one would say he was violating Duke’s rights. But people say it all the time when you go after anti-Semitic or anti-Israel speech.

There is also a pernicious notion that if you don’t like what the speaker is saying, you have a right to silence them. Of course you can carry signs, you can boo and be outside listening to your own speakers. But if you physically prevent a speaker from speaking or being heard, that’s a clear violation of her rights.

As president of UC, I condemned the shouting down of Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine. Then I condemned an incident at UC Davis where an Israeli soldier was temporarily kept from speaking and accused of being a child killer. Some student leaders said I was wrong, that I didn’t understand that freedom of expression is for marginalized people, not privileged people. I didn’t ask what privileged meant—maybe Jewish or Zionist, or that in their minds I was just an empty-suit administrator. There’s an idea out there that Jews are wealthy, powerful, well-connected, and don’t need the protection that other groups do. I’ve been disturbed by surveys that show that there’s a fairly widespread belief that it’s okay to suppress hurtful, damaging speech.

At the University of Houston, I am told, a student organization held a fund-raiser for a terrorist convicted of murder in Israel. The Jewish students complained to an administrator, who simply said the speech was constitutionally protected. Probably so. Raising money for a convicted terrorist (not engaged in current terrorism activities) may be lawful, and the associated speech may fall under the purview of the First Amendment. But it is understandable that Jewish students might find this offensive. If a group held a fundraiser for the man indicted for the outrageous murders of African Americans in a church in South Carolina, I think a lot of people would be outraged—and justifiably so. Both activities are hurtful.

Mark Yudof is the former president of the University of California and University of Minnesota. He is an expert in constitutional law and held the Charles Alan Wright Chair in Federal Courts at the University of Texas.


Zareena Grewal

In the mainstream media, the dominant narrative is that student activists invested in changing the campus climate pose an existential threat to the free exchange of ideas. These students are caricatured as social justice warriors who are too sensitive, spoiled or entitled. It was very disturbing to see how our students at Yale, and black women in particular, were abused in the press over the last year by free speech advocacy groups like FIRE. Recently, the University of California regents vetted a controversial document on forms of discriminatory language that equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Interestingly, comedian Bill Maher, who has several times used Yale students of color as the butt of his jokes, has made no mention of this issue. (Ultimately, the University of California regents declined to adopt such a blanket condemnation of anti-Zionism precisely because they deemed it to be a violation of free speech.) I think it is important to track who cries out in defense of free speech on campuses and when, because it is often incredibly revealing of one’s political commitments. For those who are concerned about free speech on campuses, my question is: Where do you see the source of the threat? Some individuals concerned about free speech might identify the Israeli lobby or corporate interests as the source of the problem, but not anti-racist student activists, and the reverse is also true.

In April, student activists at Yale staged an elegant renaming ceremony for the college dorm “formerly known as Calhoun” in protest after the Yale administration refused to honor their request to remove the name of John C. Calhoun, an avowed white supremacist. These students also object to one of our new colleges being named after Benjamin Franklin at the bequest of an alumni donor whose hedge fund, Franklin Templeton Investments, uses the likeness of the founder as a logo. Our students are inviting us to pause and reflect on what the names we choose to memorialize tell us about our values, about the academic community we are, as one student put it, “ever building and rebuilding.” This is why I do not believe there is a free speech crisis on U.S. college campuses. These anti-racist student activists are asking a different, more difficult question: How can we change the norms of institutions such as Yale so that they meet the needs of students in the 21st century while preserving our common commitment to free speech?

Zareena Grewal is an associate professor of American studies, religious studies and Middle East studies at Yale University. She is the author of Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority.


Eric Alterman

Yes, it is most definitely threatened on multiple fronts. Number one, by students who feel they have the right to shut down opinions with which they disagree or, even worse, make them think thoughts they’d prefer not to think. Number two, it’s threatened by cowardly college administrators who are afraid of “controversy” that could either make them look bad in the media or cost them potential donor contributions. There’s a third culprit at public universities: the problem of grandstanding politicians who’d like to shut down free speech to curry favor with constituents who don’t understand or appreciate the concept.

At Brooklyn College, we’ve had a number of fights over this issue, and each time, the free speech part of the argument has always been protected first. There have been state legislators and city councilmen who have tried to threaten CUNY and Brooklyn College with withdrawal of funding to shut down anti-Zionist speech, but they’ve not succeeded and I don’t think they will succeed. It’s motzira-making, which is a Talmudic term for malicious gossip. But it’s also a way for politicians and right-wing Jewish organizations that don’t care about free speech, like the Zionist Organization of America, to try to shut down speech they don’t like while playing to the prejudices of their donors and members. I say this as someone who has not only fought Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) at Brooklyn and CUNY but also helped to found an organization of anti-BDS academics worldwide.

All of these tendencies contribute to an atmosphere that is not only anti-speech but anti-thought. What is college about if not the opportunity to explore new ideas and consider new ways of thinking about the world? These actions are contrary to the entire notion of higher education. They also demonstrate a profound lack of confidence on the part of the censors in their own ideas, whether it is BDS censoring Israelis or Jewish organizations or donors who want to censor BDS.

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the “Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation.

“The premise of the modern American university is that no one should be protected from ideas. Some ideas may be wrong, but we can’t tell that they’re wrong unless we are free to debate them.” —Eugene Volokh


Kim Colby

It is very much threatened. Religious students have had a problem with uninformed college administrators trying to shut them down since the 1980s. It’s not a problem that has gone away entirely, but the Supreme Court ruled that the Establishment Clause was not violated as some universities claimed when religious groups met on campus. The irony is that some college administrators have misused non-discrimination policies to justify not allowing religious student groups to meet on campus. At Vanderbilt, for example, administrators told a Christian student group that it could remain a recognized student organization only if it deleted five words from its constitution: “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” Sometimes this religious discrimination comes from being uninformed: There are studies now showing that faculties widely view evangelical Christians negatively. We often have reports of students feeling harassed for their strong religious beliefs by faculty members who often have no familiarity with evangelical Christians.

In the 1980s, campuses were generally free speech havens for all other kinds of speech. In the past decade, we have seen this move toward speech codes or speech zones. Policies against harassment and bullying used to shut down speech that offends someone is a very bad trend that has gotten much worse. This past year, faculty may have started to see how, with trigger warnings and microagressions, students are trying to push for faculty members to censor themselves and to affect their own academic freedom. Last year at UCLA, a Jewish student wanted to be on a college student council and the board considered not voting her in because she was Jewish, assuming that she wasn’t going to vote the way they wanted her to vote on divestment from Israel. It’s frightening to see students being divided because of their faith and religious identity. If you have a historical perspective, it looks really scary.

Kim Colby is the director of Center for Law & Religious Freedom of the Christian Legal Society.


Heather Weaver

Free speech is one of our most cherished rights, and protecting that right on college and university campuses is vital. At the same time, some have claimed threats to free speech where they do not exist. For example, in the past, campus speech demeaning the LGBT community or people of color often may have gone unchallenged. But as these individuals become better represented on campus and grow more empowered to speak out, hateful or debasing speech has prompted strong responses, including protests. Shocked by the intensity of these responses, the original speakers have sometimes cried that “there’s no right not to be offended.” Equally true, however, is that free speech does not include the right to avoid the outrage prompted by speech that some find offensive.

All students are entitled to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and the fact that more students are doing so is, as a general matter, a boon to free speech, not a threat. Despite the arguments that some religious groups have advanced, the Supreme Court has made clear that free speech also does not include the right of student groups to exclude potential members on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion or other protected characteristics and still receive financial support from the university. Indeed, in the university context (where, historically, discrimination has been rampant), protecting against discriminatory conduct serves our ultimate commitment to free speech, ensuring that everyone can participate fully in campus debates.

The true danger to free speech occurs when university officials do not understand where these constitutional lines must be drawn or fail to enforce them. At the University of Oklahoma, for example, fraternity students were caught on video engaging in vile racist chants. Hundreds of students protested these offensive comments, as was their right. Unfortunately, the university, in response to the local and national furor sparked by the video, expelled some of the fraternity students. Make no mistake: The government has a compelling interest in ensuring that students will not have their educational opportunities limited because of their race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Any sanction imposed on students, however, must be consistent with the First Amendment and not merely a punishment for reprehensible speech, as seemed to be the case at OU. Carefully crafted nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies can both protect students from abuse while preserving core free speech rights. It’s up to administrators to ensure that those constitutional lines are respected.

Heather Weaver is senior staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. She litigates a wide range of religious liberty cases and is an expert on First Amendment issues.


Jonathan Chait

It is. But I think people make a bit of a category mistake by describing what’s going on as a campus speech problem. I think what’s happening is the rise of an illiberal ideology that’s concerned with limiting political expression by people who don’t share the left’s ideas on anything relating to identity. You are seeing this manifest itself mostly on college campuses because campuses are the only place where people who share this belief system have enough political power to carry out their ideas. But it’s not limited to campuses.

The problem we have is an ideology that regards identity questions as being essentially settled, sees disagreements as a threat, and tends to regard free speech not as a positive-sum good that all members of the community share but as a zero-sum contest between oppressors and oppressed, to which the proper solution is to resolve it in favor of the oppressed by closing down expression of the oppressors.

The most common way you’re seeing it, by far, is the adoption of a series of norms of discourse on the left. It’s the idea that any member of a community can call out someone else for having some kind of a bigoted idea, and that there’s essentially no defense against the callout. That is, in some ways, the defining norm of this culture—that there’s no legitimate defense against this charge. There’s no way to reason through it. It doesn’t make any allowance for the possibility that someone could erroneously diagnose racism or sexism or some other form of bigotry in another person’s ideas. The only real way to resolve the dispute, once the callout has been made, is through an apology or a confession.

People who don’t abide by those rules sometimes face more stringent responses. You have the whole litany of news stories that have been pretty widely covered—newspapers with their funding threatened or speeches shouted down or plays canceled or speakers being bullied into canceling their speeches. But I think those are almost the tip of the iceberg that you see over the water. The more widely accepted norms of discourse are the much larger portion that’s beneath the surface.

Jonathan Chait writes for New York magazine. He wrote the January 2015 cover story “Not A Very P.C. Thing To Say: How the Language Police are Perverting Liberalism.”

One thought on “Is Free Speech Under Fire on Campus?

  1. I was privileged to have had my comments on this symposium appear in the print issue of Moment. To further the exchange of views on this critical issue, I reproduce my comments here, and encourage signed reader responses.

    Ronald W. Pies MD

    Dear Editors:

    Your symposium on free speech was very instructive, within the framework of first amendment rights and general civility. But I couldn’t help wondering how the issue would have been handled in your “Ask the Rabbis” section. I suspect that the rabbis would have invoked several Talmudic principles and teachings, including: 1. Avoiding lashon hara (“evil tongue”), which refers to true statements that nevertheless harm, embarrass or lower the status of the person being discussed (see J. Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1); 2. Avoiding motzi shem ra (“giving another a bad name”), which entails making false, derogatory statements about another person; 3. Kavod habriyot, or respect for human dignity; and, perhaps most important, 4. the Talmudic teaching that, “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood” (Bava Metzia 58b). There is no reason why intense political, religious, and other differences on campus cannot be discussed with an eye toward these rabbinic principles, and in the spirit of robust but respectful disagreement.

    Ronald W. Pies MD

    The writer is a psychiatrist, ethicist, and author of Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone.

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