Free speech on campus: Is it in danger? | FACTUAL FEMINIST

Free speech on campus: Is it in danger? | FACTUAL FEMINIST

September 30, 2019 30 By Stanley Isaacs


Is the campus free speech crisis a myth? Some say yes. They tell us not to be distracted by media
stories of campus radicals shouting down speakers. “Look at the big picture,” they say. “Free speech is doing just fine.” Are they right? That is coming up next on the Factual Feminist. I was recently invited to Lewis & Clark Law School
in Portland, Oregon, to give a lecture making a case for more openness on women’s issues, such as the gender wage gap, or the patriarchal
rape culture. These need to be questioned and debated, not accepted as gospel. Women—everyone—are best served by truth—not
slogans, much less myths. But I was drowned out by chants: “The wage
gap is real,” “The campus rape culture is real.” My speech was disrupted. And video of the protest went viral, and several
news stories cited it as an example of growing intolerance on campus. That’s when the pushback came. Matthew Yglesias at VOX, and political scientist
Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, assured everyone not to worry. Support for free speech is stronger than ever,
they said—especially among college students. As evidence, they pointed to one of the most
trusted sources of data in the social sciences, the General Social Survey. The GSS has been measuring public attitudes
on free speech since the 1970s. And it does suggest, just as Yglesias and
Sachs say, that 18 to 34 year-olds are the most likely to support free speech. But there are two big problems. First, not all 18-34 year-olds are students. In fact, the GSS excludes those who live in
“group quarters”—such as dormitories! Moreover, the GSS measures support for free
expression by asking people how they feel about speakers such as —communists,
homosexuals, atheists. But most of these involve issues that are
much less controversial today than they used to be So what we need is a study that asks relevant
questions to a cross-section of current college students. Fortunately, three recent surveys come closer
to the mark. For example, the Gallup-Knight Foundation
survey, looked at a random sample of 3,000 college students. The survey found that 70 percent of students said they preferred their campus to be an ‘open learning environment’ where
they might be exposed to offensive speech. Twenty-nine percent preferred a “positive
environment that prohibited certain speech.” Jeffrey Sachs cites this as further evidence
that the “kids are all right.” Well, nearly 30 percent of college students favoring
censorship is not exactly cause to rejoice, especially when that figure is up from 22%
two years ago But here is what is most troubling to me:
37 percent of college students said it was acceptable to shout down speakers. I have been lecturing on campuses for decades
and, until recently, no one shouted at me or tried to disrupt the event. My colleague Charles Murray has faced noisy
protestors in the past, but he says, he could always count on someone in the audience telling
them to “Sit down and shut up, we want to hear what he has to say.” The protesters, aware they were in the minority,
would melt away. But recently, at schools like Middlebury,
Berkeley, Claremont-McKenna, Evergreen State, Lewis & Clark—the censorious minority is not melting away. censorious minority is not melting away. Why not? I have noticed one striking change. An increasing numbers of college professors
and students equate speech with violence. I first became aware
of the conflation of speech with violence in 2015. An Oberlin professor explained in the campus
newspaper that by questioning sexual assault statistics, I was attacking victims’ experiences
and their… reactions to those experiences” Such skepticism, she said is a form of discursive violence. The idea that words and arguments constitute
violence is gaining currency. In statement about my Lewis & Clark talk,
protesters said, that while “free speech is an important tenet” that freedom stops
“when it has a … violent impact on other individuals.” “There is no debate here.” And no debate was allowed. The law students who disrupted my talk at
Lewis and Clark were very much in the minority. And students who came to listen did tell them
to keep quiet. But the protesters were confident and determined. Because, I think in their minds they were taking a principled firm stand against violence. But speech is not violence—it is how we
avoid violence. Speech is how we negotiate with one another
in a pluralistic society. The distinction between words and deeds is
foundational to American law—it’s foundational to American democracy. Surveys about what students think about free
speech in general may not tell us much about the real state of tolerance on campus. We also need to understand how students think
about speech, and whether they are captive to a worldview that equates it with violence. And we need to know how many administrators
will tolerate their reign of error. Those who assure us that all is well on the
campus have yet to come to grips with this problem. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. And please subscribe to the series and follow
me on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for watching the Factual Feminist.