In the fall of 2004, I was sent to Alabama to learn to be a better mid-level officer. During one lecture, an Air Force general recommended a book on Islam that sent the faculty into apoplectic attempts to censor comments already made. The book was judged as non-scholarly at best and bigoted at worst. Professors made immediate attempts to discredit both the book and the speaker for making such a recommendation. They lamented our ability to develop as officers with such uninformed senior leadership. It was a shocking display of derision for our ability to think. It led me to write a satirical piece which, through the wonders of the internet, spread around the world in less than twenty-four hours and gained me some infamy among academic and military leaders on the base. The fact that I could tell you the name of the professorial ring-leader of this attempt at thought purity through source limiting, and that I can recall neither the general officer’s name nor the title of the book should perhaps be instructive as we approach similar attacks on the second right of the First Amendment.
Recent protests at Middlebury College in Vermont and UC Berkeley’s institutional identity disorder over whether conservative firebrand Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak have brought the issue of free speech on campus back to the front page. In Vermont, the student body shouted down Charles Murray, author of the controversial book The Bell Curve. Berkeley first disinvited Ms. Coulter, citing fears over violent protests, then re-invited her. Issues such as the supposed fragility of our youths’ minds to offense cloud the greater principle and far more dangerous consequence of such nonsense. Trigger warnings and “safe space” concepts are anathema to intellectual and academic freedom and teach these fragile youths that suppressing speech is warranted if individuals’ feelings are hurt. It is only one step further to endorse suppression of speech with which one disagrees. This appears to be exactly what is happening at some of the best schools in the land.
A piece appeared in the March 30th, 2017 edition of The Economist highlighting a study of protests and attempts by student bodies at some of the finest institutions of higher learning to disinvite controversial speakers. It found a statistically significant and proportional correlation between the income of students’ families and college entrance exam scores with the ability to gather large protests and to be “successful” in influencing institutions to pull invitations and cancel speaking engagements. These are disturbing data. Those with higher intellectual capacities who come from families of greater means are more likely to protest and ultimately suppress speakers.
This finding gives credence to the claim from conservatives and rural America about “liberal elites” and their hypocrisy over tolerance. It makes combatting “political correctness” the rallying cry of populists and gives cover to our reemergent problem of white nationalists and supremacists. Perhaps most harmfully, it sets a precedent from the most respected institutions of higher learning in the world that sequestering students from ideas that might challenge their views about the world and society is a legitimate endeavor. That idea is a major force behind religious home-schooling curricula, some of which teach that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old. This precedent can only lead to greater self-segregation, both physically and mentally, into like-minded cabals where independent and critical thought die a quick yet merciless death.
While the institutions themselves may plod on, higher learning itself cannot thrive in any environment where the free exchange of ideas is stifled. Academic freedom is a necessity if colleges and universities still expect their students’ minds to grow. It has been, heretofore, the reason U.S. schools are the most respected in the world. It does not have to remain so.
These schools should immediately cease caving to their highly recruited, supposedly intellectual students of rich parents when it comes to one of our most basic rights. They must encourage differing viewpoints to be widely heard. They should spend time mentoring these would-be future leaders on the merits of civil discourse and the methods thereof. There are ways to protest—silently, with well-reasoned queries during question and answer sessions, or in a more raucous manner outside the venue—that still allow speakers to have their say and others to process the words in their own time and way. There may be cause to sanction those who disrupt and disable fora where speakers have been invited to share their views. These are not political rallies where there is no expectation of academic rigor nor of insulation from others expressing their own political views. Shouting someone down in these academic environments is not an equal form of free speech when its sole intent is to muffle their views, denying them the same right the protester claims as cover.
I am no fan of either Mr. Murray or Ms. Coulter, but they and other controversial speakers must be allowed to talk. Often doing so is in the interest of those who would oppose them. When certain ideas are exposed to the light, the full weight of their internal inconsistencies and the biases of their creators can be projected to ever wider audiences. This is nothing to fear; it ought to be cheered. On the free exchange of ideas, the arc of history—or a concept’s utter lack of ability to capture and hold a memory—sees to it that bad ones die of their own frailty. The name and life of Cesar Chavez will likely be widely known long after Ann Coulter’s contributions disappear into a tiny, dark, and barely accessible crevasse of human knowledge.
In the world’s great cities there are places where speakers will talk to whoever will listen, and when no one listens at all. My first experience with such a place was Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. It is in the country that so economically, religiously, and intellectually repressed a bunch of upstart colonists “in a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations…” that they saw fit to “…throw off such Government…” and eventually create the most enlightened document on self-governance yet known. At Speakers’ Corner, you may hear the eloquent and the absurd. There, as it should be everywhere, it is up to the listener alone to discern the difference between the two.