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Commentary

Free Speech on Campus: Under Attack from Both Directions?


     
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The recent Harvard University faculty vote of “no confidence” for university president Lawrence Summers and the call for the resignation of University of Colorado’s Ward Churchill point to a return of censorship from both the right and the left on college campuses.

In January, Summers was asked at a closed meeting to pose some provocative thoughts about controversies in higher education. Obliging the request, Summers speculated on the reasons why women might, in general, have less aptitude at the higher ends of achievement in science and math than men. The reaction by the feminist left to these remarks was swift and strong, culminating in the “no confidence” vote on Summers. That the faculty of America’s most renowned university considered the enforcement of a politically correct viewpoint more important than respect for free thought and the honest pursuit of truth speaks volumes about the status of free speech and academic freedom in higher education.

Recent speeches by professor Ward Churchill accusing Americans of being “murderers” for tolerating American policy in the world, and comparing the victims of the World Trade Center attacks to “little Eichmanns” who were somehow morally culpable for their fate, has also had significant fallout. The president of the University of Colorado has resigned, and Colorado officials are calling for Churchill to be fired. When the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater decided not to revoke a previous invitation it extended to Churchill to speak (one of the few schools to take this stand), the Wisconsin legislature debated a resolution that would have empowered the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents to “timely dismiss” a professor whose ideas they deem to be “dishonorable.” That this power would destroy the very fabric of academic freedom escaped the champions of this measure.

These responses suggest that many individuals who should know better have not learned the lessons of the last fifteen years, when a different type of censorship began to spread across college campuses around the country: censorship in the name of “politically correct” leftist causes. Such censorship sent a chill across higher education, unfairly ruining many careers in the process. The Churchill affair portends the return of a more traditional type of censorship: that purveyed by the right, coming from outside the university’s gates. Suddenly, academic freedom is besieged from both the left and the right.

The politically correct censorship of the left also remains alive and well, in another recent case at the University of Nevada. Consider the plight of economics professor Hans Hoppe at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Last November, Hoppe spent a minute or two in a lecture opining about how homosexuals might have different time horizons in making decisions about saving money because they tend not to have their own children. This remark offended a student, who proceeded to accuse Hoppe of “harassment” of homosexuals. (Whatever happened to taking the intellectual freedom route by talking to the professor or presenting a counter-view in class!) An all too typical coercive investigation ensued. Fortunately for academic freedom, Hoppe is resisting the investigation, and has marshaled the support of the supporters of academic freedom around the country.

All of these cases reflect the political imbalance of faculties nationwide and the politically selective way in which some on the left have reacted to the most prominent threats to free speech and academic freedom on campus. Conservatives have borne the brunt of speech codes and related policies, and have comprised the vast majority of speakers who have been shouted down when they enter the campus public forum. Too many on the left have not spoken out against such forms of censorship, probably because the other side’s ox was being gored. Indeed, Churchill himself has obstructed Columbus Day parades, claiming that they represent “hate speech.” He was no champion of free speech until his own speech came under attack.

But the last thing American campuses need is censorship from the right piling onto the preexisting censorship from the left. Universities will not regain the public trust that they have squandered until they stand up and defend the principles of free speech and academic freedom for everyone, regardless of their politics.


Donald A. Downs is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of the new book Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (Cambridge University Press).






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