ALEXANDRIA, VA —Historically, and in many parts of the world today, the major threat to freedom of speech comes from government censorship.
Criticism of government leaders and policies can land you in jail in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Zimbabwe, and, sadly, in a host of countries that we do not ordinarily view as authoritarian.
Even in Western Europe, many countries make it a serious offense to use language that might be considered offensive to different racial, ethnic, or religious groups.
In our own country, free speech is legally guaranteed by the First Amendment — short of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
Still, while government cannot put you in jail for what is perceived as objectionable speech, there are other ways to limit free speech. The major threat to free speech in today’s American society, particularly on college and university campuses, is what has come to be known as “political correctness.”
The major threat to free speech in today’s American society, particularly on college and university campuses, is what has come to be known as “political correctness.”
Recently, the president of Smith College sent out an email in which she expressed support for those on campus who were protesting the grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter,” wrote President Kathleen McCartney. “We gather in vigil; we raise our voices in protest.”
This statement offended some students, who suggested that McCartney’s use of the word “all” was a direct refutation of the now-popular slogan, “Black lives matter.” Sophomore Cecilia Lim told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “like she was invalidating the experience of black lives.” McCartney quickly apologized.
At the University of Michigan, Omar Mahmood, a junior who writes for both the mainstream campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily, and the university’s conservative publication, The Michigan Review, poked fun at the growing embrace of the idea of “white privilege.” He claimed, tongue in cheek, that a system of right-handed privilege was oppressing left-handed people everywhere through daily right-handed “micro-aggressions” — a term widely used to characterize the experience of minorities on predominantly white campuses.
In response, Mr. Mahmood is no longer writing for The Michigan Daily. He also was victimized by “progressive” students who vandalized his room, pelted the door with eggs, and attached messages calling him “scum” and telling him to “shut up” and leave school. The editor of The Michigan Review said, “These progressive students attacked Omar because they felt that he, as a Muslim, cannot also be a conservative.”
Such events are growing in number. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a report in December that most U.S. colleges now violate free speech rights. The report found that 55 percent of the 437 universities analyzed have substantial limits on speech.
…most U.S. colleges now violate free speech rights. A report found that 55 percent of the 437 universities analyzed have substantial limits on speech.
In one instance, columnist and commentator George Will was disinvited from giving a lecture at Scripps College. The reason: Mr. Will had written a column in which he disputed some claims about sexual assault on college campuses.
In another case, a teaching assistant at Marquette University banned discussion of homosexual marriage in a class on ethics, on the premise that even discussing the subject would be “homophobic.” When tenured Marquette Professor John McAdams criticized this censorship on his blog, the university suspended him from teaching and banned him from campus.
Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School notes:
“The most damaging corruption of higher education today... is the smothering weight of extreme, left-leaning political correctness that bears down on nearly every campus. Especially in the humanities, but increasingly in the sciences and social sciences, an obsession with race, class, gender, sexuality, identity, and multiculturalism holds sway, crowding out other priorities and stifling alternative opinions. Anyone who doubts this should try pointing to inconvenient facts during a lecture or challenging academia’s cherished items of faith. Although tenured professors might dare, undergraduates risk ostracism or official sanction. The message is clear: Build your soul, but watch your mouth and steer clear of sacred cows.”
In Professor Wax’s view:
“Students are exposed only to a narrow range of positions on important public issues. Too many leave with utopian beliefs that ill equip them for reality. … The prevailing creed of non- judgmentalism — except toward the ultimate sin of discrimination — doesn’t help.”
—Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School
“Students are exposed only to a narrow range of positions on important public issues. Too many leave with utopian beliefs that ill equip them for reality. In the grip of a catechism dictating that discrimination is the root of all evil, bad behavior is society’s fault.... Our leading graduates cannot help but experience moral vertigo once they leave the ivy bubble. And the prevailing creed of non- judgmentalism — except toward the ultimate sin of discrimination — doesn’t help. Ivy graduates are hard- pressed to acknowledge, let alone address, the personal and policy choices that actually stymie efforts to elevate the less privileged.”
Many on our campuses seem not to believe that genuine free speech — even for ideas with which we disagree, even for those we find offensive — is an essential ingredient of any society that calls itself free.
In “On Liberty” (1859), http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/onliberty/summary.html John Stuart Mill declares, “If all mankind minus one were of the opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
It is important to remember, as well, that while the enemies of free speech in the name of political correctness are loud, they represent only a fringe of the larger American society. In his classic, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke speaks as if he were observing the contemporary American university campus:
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”
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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2015
by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald
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Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing
editor to such publications as Human Events,
The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle
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