In 1993, Jonathan Rauch wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, an influential defense of free speech and open inquiry that was excerpted in Reason. The book took aim at would-be censors on campus and off and made a staunch case for the virtues of radical speech. Reviewing Rauch's book in The New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that "what sets his study apart is his attempt to situate recent developments in a long-range historical perspective and to defend the system of free intellectual inquiry as a socially productive method of channeling prejudice." Nearly 30 years later, attacks on free thought have persisted and in some ways become even more pervasive as cancel culture has become part of the American lexicon.
Latest News and Commentary: National
People nationwide have been physically assaulted and even threatened with loss of their livelihoods for no other reason than that they plan to vote as one half of the country does, and political goals are now commonly pursued by violent means. With this our civilization seems to be regressing to a time when disputes were settled by force instead of rules, and before the First Amendment guaranteed the right to speak freely on the social and political issues of the day. Worse yet is that this social regression began on college campuses. On one-party campuses, radical-left faculty have established a political orthodoxy that student mobs enforce, and the political culture of the nation is poisoned as those students take home with them their professors’ habit of seeing opinions that differ from theirs as an evil not to be tolerated. Universities now attack the most basic principles of American society, and do so with lavish taxpayer support. We should decide how best to cut them off.
Anti-racism, or as it is often now put with deific capitals, Anti-Racism, is the captivating idea now on college campuses across the county. Of course, anti-racist edicts pour forth not just from college presidents, but also corporate boardrooms, owners of NFL teams, Hollywood studios, high-tech Xanadus, publishing houses, and just about anywhere that voices can be raised in tones of cultural authority. But college campuses are the deep well from which that authority flows. If nearly every other sector of society now speaks in hushed deference to the need for anti-racism, it is because the leaders of these sectors have all been to college. Several generations of not-quite-indoctrination have left their mark. I say not-quite-indoctrination because immersion in American higher education is different from a sojourn in a North Korean re-education camp. The food is a lot better, for one thing. Not-quite-indoctrination is a subtler form of persuasion. It involves pleasant surroundings, much moral congratulation, and lots of self-approval. Not-quite-indoctrination begins in persuading students that they are chosen, because they see things more deeply than others, including their parents.
Good news is hard to find on American campuses these days, so we’re even happier than usual to report a victory for free speech at the University of Michigan. The school administration has agreed under legal duress to disband its speech police and reform its student code. The retreat came after a successful legal challenge last month to Michigan’s Bias Response Team by Speech First, a nonprofit focusing on campus speech. The university’s bureaucratic bias cops had the power to investigate students accused of speech deemed offensive merely by the “feelings” of those offended. Like most people these days, we’re offended by someone’s speech nearly every day. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Bias Response Team “acts by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech.”
Excerpt: Since June, a group of Northwestern University students has demanded that the school disband its campus police force and sever ties with the Evanston, Illinois police department. On Saturday, October 17, their protests became unruly. Members of NU Community Not Cops (NUCNC) sprayed anti-cop graffiti on private and public property, broke a window at the local Whole Foods market, set at least one trash can on fire, and burned a school banner. The following Monday, Northwestern’s president denounced the violence in the most unequivocal of terms—and was himself promptly denounced as a racist for having done so. But the president, Morton Schapiro, to his enormous credit, has neither apologized nor backed down on his refusal to abolish the campus police department. [H]e has done something that almost no Democratic politician or progressive opinion leader has dared do with such forcefulness: draw a bright line between Black Lives Matter protests and violence.
Excerpt: Almost since the start of Power Line in 2002, we have reported with dismay the descent of American colleges and universities into a leftist bastion of illiberalism. Most of our focus has been on professors, and not without reason. They are the ones who have degraded the teaching of humanities through their obsession with identify politics and disdain for Western Civilization. However, I came away from this year’s ATHENA Roundtable Conference believing that administrators, not professors, are the primary culprits on American campuses today. The ATHENA Roundtable Conference is a program presented by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). ACTA is an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities. The threat posted by the ever-growing ranks of college administrators was pinpointed in an address by Samuel Abrams. He’s a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College who has not only fought courageously for academic freedom, but also studied, as an empirical matter, the threat to it. You can read his AEI article about the subversive role of college administrators here. Abrams explained that, compared to administrators, college professors exert limited influence on the lives of students. They teach relatively light course loads, have limited visiting hours, spend most of the day on research, and then head home to their family (if any).
American liberals once prided themselves on their fidelity to the First Amendment. Indeed, they had an expansive understanding of it. They defended unpopular speech and even the most provocative examples of “freedom of expression.” One could question their hesitation to set limits in these areas, but there was something admirable about their principled defense of the free exchange of ideas. This kind of liberalism, however, is in massive retreat today and is barely present on our colleges and university campuses. Instead, the forces of ideological correctness demand intellectual and even political conformity and seek out dissenting voices to humiliate and silence.
If critical race/gender/queer theory is unfalsifiable postmodern claptrap, as I have long contended, how has it conquered so many institutions so swiftly? It’s been a staggering achievement. Critical theory was once an esoteric academic pursuit. Now it has become the core, underlying philosophy of the majority of American cultural institutions, universities, media, corporations, liberal churches, NGOs, philanthropies, and, of course, mainstream journalism. This summer felt like a psychic break from old-school liberalism, a moment when a big part of the American elite just decided to junk the principles that have long defined American democratic life, and embrace what Bari Weiss calls “a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality. And the pièce de resistance: 21 percent of liberal students in the Ivy League favor some level of violence to stop campus speech they disapprove of.
Tenured radicals are real. So are tenured reactionaries. But that’s not a very important observation. In our recent essay, we scrutinized the evidence behind the claim that American colleges and universities are disproportionately liberal and biased against conservatives. The charge of liberal bias has attained doctrinal status in conservative circles, where radical academics are blamed for a variety of social ills — from stoking racial divisions to undermining support for free speech. Our review of the empirical and historical evidence found that the conservative complaint about academic liberal bias is poorly supported.
Tensions were rising at Binghamton University last November as a crowd of protesters surrounded a table where students displayed images of guns and proclaimed their right to carry them. As the shouting escalated, the university police escorted the conservative students away but didn’t arrest any protesters — a decision that would prompt complaints of bias and a lawsuit from campus Republicans. It’s the kind of controversy that usually plays out within the confines of a campus, and sometimes in the courts, but this one has also attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Education. Since President Trump issued an executive order on free speech last year, Binghamton is at least the third university to be put on notice that it is under federal investigation. Free-speech experts predicted more will follow.