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.
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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.
The Ivy League offers students sterling credentials, but is miserly when it comes to offering them free speech — try the University of Chicago instead. That’s just one of the findings from the first-ever rankings of the free speech climates at 55 of America’s largest and most prestigious campuses, based on the largest free speech survey of college students ever performed. “2020 College Free Speech Rankings: What’s the Climate for Free Speech on America’s College Campuses?” features the opinions of the roughly 20,000 students surveyed. Other highlights: Seven of the top 10 colleges for free speech are public, and only one of the top 10 is in the Northeast, while the bottom 10 include many schools that repeatedly make headlines for campus censorship.
Our national reckoning on race has brought to the fore a loose but committed assemblage of people given to the idea that social justice must be pursued via attempts to banish from the public sphere, as much as possible, all opinions that they interpret as insufficiently opposed to power differentials. Valid intellectual and artistic endeavor must hold the battle against white supremacy front and center, white people are to identify and expunge their complicity in this white supremacy with the assumption that this task can never be completed, and statements questioning this program constitute a form of “violence” that merits shaming and expulsion. Skeptics have labeled this undertaking “cancel culture,” which of late has occasioned a pushback from its representatives. The goal, they suggest, is less to eliminate all signs of a person’s existence—which tends to be impractical anyway—than to supplement critique with punishment of some kind.
About Liberty and Justice for All: We are an academic and intellectual enterprise focused on making sure that what has happened in the American academy—and which has now spilled out into American streets—does not take over and destroy our free and decent polity. Over a quarter-century ago, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—a committed liberal and partisan Democrat—and Allan Bloom—a conservative, of sorts—wrote very different books that came to similarly disturbing conclusions: that the mind of the American university was closing and that it would result, as Schlesinger put it, in the “disuniting of America.” Their shared prophecy is now playing out in our streets in ways that neither would probably have imagined. By now, the American academy is in some respects a lost cause. Tenured radicals who got their toehold by appealing to demands for diversity have largely taken over and discarded any pretense of intellectual diversity.
Cancel culture notwithstanding, legal commentator Ken White argues that “this is a golden age for free speech in America.” For decades, he notes, the Supreme Court has protected all manner of objectionable speech, from burning the American flag to homophobic protests outside servicemen’s funerals. That’s true—but those victories rest on a broad cultural consensus. If campus norms continue to displace free speech culture, judges and lawyers will eventually start to ignore the First Amendment or, worse, chip away at it until it is meaningless. Free-speech culture gave us the First Amendment to begin with. It kept free speech alive in the tumultuous 19th century. It reinvigorated the First Amendment in the 20th century. It informs interpretations of the First Amendment today—and it will determine whether free-speech protections will survive. That’s very much in doubt, considering the state of those norms in higher education.
An associate professor of politics at Converse College in South Carolina says he’s facing possible termination for publicly refusing to complete newly mandated diversity and antibias training. “My department chairman has informed me that the administration intends to dismiss me for insubordination and other reasons,” the professor, Jeffrey Poelvoorde, said via email. “I’m going to the mat on this one.” Poelvoorde, who denied an interview request, citing his attorney’s guidance, said that Converse recently told employees to complete mandatory diversity and bias training, in response to the murder of George Floyd by police and other events. Instead of watching the two training modules, Poelvoorde wrote an open letter to the college explaining his intention to defy the new requirement. He also expressed outrage that the college’s previous public statements condemning Floyd’s murder did not also condemn protests that turned violent. In particular, Poelvoorde mentioned David Dorn, the late Black retired police officer who was killed while providing security to a store in St. Louis in June.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have swept the nation, some college administrators are acting quickly when it comes to professors' provocative or offensive posts on social media. In some cases, however, administrators' hands are tied.. Last week Scott Senjo, a professor of criminal justice at Weber State University, posted three threatening tweets about people protesting against police brutality. The institution quickly started an investigation; Senjo said on Wednesday that he had agreed to its request that he step down, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. At Miami University, in Ohio, Douglas Brooks, a retired professor teaching a summer course, was accused of making offensive comments to protesters. In a letter from the provost to faculty members, the university condemned his views but said his speech is protected by the First Amendment. Still, Miami is giving students the option to finish the course with a different professor, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.