Who Will Restore Free Speech On American Campuses?


Yes, yes, threats to free speech on campus are burgeoning, and should be stopped.  Easier said, perhaps, than done.   Even two noted traditionalists, writing for National Review Online, are at odds over indicated responses to outrages like the Middlebury College shout-down of Charles Murray’s attempt to communicate truth and reason to student monopolists of the  “truths” they want heard in solemn isolation from anyone else’s.  You know, like, “Yeaaah, yeaaah, you’re a racist!”

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says on NRO that administrators should be “pressed to restore discipline for speaker shout-downs.”  He’d like sanctions for the disruptive and official university commitment to neutrality on heated issues.  Prof. Peter Lawler, of Berry College, by contrast,  proposes deregulation of duties imposed on universities by the federal government so as to further marketplace discipline and protect “national diversity among institutions.”

A consideration worth thinking through is how likely the prospects for any of this to happen are.    Like, academia is going to start worrying about conservatives—conservatives!—who get muzzled by, hmmm, energized left-wing students?

Kurtz sidles up to the basic problem:  “The tattered campus climate of free speech ultimately rests on deeper cultural shifts that must be addressed by educators over the long run.”  By educators, he ought to have added, and by the whole of society.  The “cultural shifts” in question have moved America from a consensus outlook on moral habits like decency, fairness, and self-respect to a stew of personal obsessions,  none centered on the kind of self-restraint now called for.

Too few Americans, in other words, including Americans endowed with power and influence, believe any more that people “like Charles Murray” actually deserve a chance to make their views heard, and that the hearing of those views might conduce to general understanding.

We live in a moment when mass hysterias override and drive away the reasonableness our civilization once took as a cornerstone of the good life, the life of ordered liberty.  Campus disorders merely reflect the mental and moral disorders of the time.  Meaning, among other things, who’s actually going to enact these calm and logical reforms if too few these days believe calm and logical reforms have any place among us?  Who’s going to pass the needed laws?  Who’s going to see the need for deregulation?

The reason campus disorders sprang up in the 1960s – and have continued sporadically to the present day – is that prior to the 1960s the American consensus heretofore mentioned held that it was good to hear diverse viewpoints; good to ponder them; good to enact some of them.  The Me-Me-Me Climate of the ‘60s succeeded the supposed “conformity” of the ‘40s and ‘50s.   Me-Me-Me turned out to mean, in practice, to heck with you, and hooray for me, myself, and I. 

Cultural renewal is what we need before we start passing or proposing laws worth less than the paper on which they’re printed.   Better teaching is the way to cultural renewal, meaning the colleges and universities have a mission larger even than the physical enforcement of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Read more articles:

by author on academic integrity on free speech