Free Speech on Campus?

There is a growing trend on American college campuses, a trend that augurs badly for free speech and robust debate.

I refer to the way various groups of people use expressions of hurt feelings to trump speakers they disagree with. The most recent manifestation of this was at Brandeis University.

Brandeis had invited the Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary doctorate and speak at the university’s commencement exercises. Her remarkable story is certainly worth honoring. She fled her native Africa to avoid one of those “arranged marriages,” finding asylum in The Netherlands. While living there, she was elected to the Dutch Parliament and became an outspoken critic of the way women and girls are treated under Islamic law.

She wrote the screenplay for a short film entitled “Submission” in 2004. The film’s director, Theo Van Gogh, was stabbed to death in Amsterdam by an Islamic zealot in 2006, retribution for his role in the film. For a year, Hirsi Ali continued living in The Netherlands, under heavy security, since she was also a target. In 2007, she left for the United States.

Among her awards is the Free Speech award given by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the paper that dared to publish the Muhammad cartoons.

Brandeis thought that she was worth honoring for her work on women’s rights around the world—but then came the opposition. An online petition excoriated Brandeis for its decision. It stated that Hirsi Ali had engaged in “hate speech” against Islam because she denies that it is “a religion of peace” and argues that it cannot be reformed by moderates.

The pressure of an online petition with over 6,000 names was too much for Brandeis to bear. On April 8, the university released a statement announcing its cancellation of the honorary degree and disinvitation to speak. In it, Brandeis said that although Ayann Hirsi Ali is a “compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights” it could not grant the honorary degree because some of her statements “are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”

Since when is it inconsistent with the “core values” of Brandeis (or any other university) to say controversial things? Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s views about Islam are no doubt debatable, but having said debatable things in the past should not preclude anyone from speaking in the future. As she wrote in a sharp rejoinder to Brandeis published here, “Neither Brandeis nor my critics know or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.”

Exactly so.

America has always had groups of people who are so absolutely certain of their righteousness that they boil over with anger at anyone who disagrees with them. We have seen zealotry over religion, alcoholic beverages, racial policies, unions, communism, schooling, abortion, and many other issues. In the past, however, our educational institutions mostly held to John Stuart Mill’s belief that free and open debate was the only proper approach to the clash of ideas. No one should be censored merely because others might find his or her thoughts to be upsetting.

Brandeis’ disinvitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali shows that a new and dangerous approach to intellectual conflict is setting in among our colleges and universities—the idea that if a speaker’s statements (or mere presence) sufficiently outrages opponents, that’s a good reason to say, “No, we don’t want you here.” This is worse than allowing the “heckler’s veto” because the mere assertion of hurt feelings and threat of conflict now suffices to silence someone.

People have pointed out that Brandeis is quite hypocritical in its treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In the past, it has honored people who have said controversial things that might just as well be regarded as offensive as her statements. George Mason University law professor David Bernstein points out on Volokh Conspiracy that Brandeis gave an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner, despite his highly derogatory remarks about American Jews who disagree with him. Bernstein writes, “Apparently, while expressing hostility to Islam conflicts with Brandeis’s core values,’ engaging in vile insults against American Jews who support Israel does not.”

Bernstein thus exposes the double standards at work in the silencing business. Only certain groups get to use their expressions of outrage for that purpose. If any pro-Israel Jews had protested the award to Kushner, they would have been ignored. Or, suppose that a group of students were to protest an invitation to Angela Davis, a history professor who has long defended Marxism on the grounds that they are offended by her defense of communism. Any chance that their petition to keep Davis off campus would succeed? Nope.

The real problem here, however, is not the double standards. The problem is that universities cave in to such pressure at all. Universities above all other institutions should stand up for the idea that it’s wrong to censor anyone or stifle debate, no matter who is offended and how many claim to be outraged. Educational leaders should say, “If you think you’ll disagree with someone, first hear what he or she has to say, then make the best counter-arguments you can.” That should be the universally applicable ground rule for education.

Unfortunately, that rule has suffered terrible erosion, just as the rule of law itself has. Political interest groups often succeed in getting officials to waive laws on their behalf and similarly they often succeed in getting university leaders to waive the rules of free speech to silence those with whom they disagree.

That regrettable tendency is the focal point of an excellent book by Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty, now in its second edition. Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is precisely on target when he writes, “For decades, our universities have been teaching students that speech with a chance of offending someone should immediately be silenced….” Brandeis has just reinforced that lesson.

What might happen if a college leader had the backbone to tell the protesters “No, you don’t get to prevent people from speaking here, and if you don’t abide by the rules of civil discourse, you will be ejected”? We had such an instance several years ago at the University of North Carolina.

In 2009, former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, an opponent of liberalizing immigration was speaking on campus when a mob of protesters so disrupted the event that Tancredo had to leave. The university administration announced that such tactics would not be permitted and that campus security would deal with any future protests. Sure enough, the next time a controversial figure spoke at UNC, former Congressman Virgil Goode, some protesters tried to shout him down, but were promptly removed from the room. (Read Jay Schalin’s piece on those and related events at UNC here.)

The point is that if university leaders have enough backbone not to cave in to attempted intimidation by groups that want free speech for themselves but not for anyone who disagrees with them, they and the university will survive. Standing up for free speech and open debate in the face of protesters and petitioners isn’t like charging an enemy machine gun nest. Those who do so will strengthen the academic enterprise and live to tell the tale.