A Liberal Calls Out Intolerant Leftists Who Smother Free Speech on Campus

When Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board complained a few weeks ago that “many texts in the Western canon [contain] triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities,” I thought of China, whose education minister vowed to ban “textbooks promoting Western values” earlier this year.  

The rise of intolerance on campus and beyond makes a new book by columnist and television commentator Kirsten Powers a must-read. If you do not yet believe that American higher education is smothered in intolerance of diverse ideas, read The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. Authoritarian nations like China might be expected to shut down any prospect of a free exchange of ideas, but American students, American professors, and American university presidents all too frequently try to marginalize and ban disfavored words, values, and ideas.  

People who don’t follow higher education might be surprised to learn how many colleges have fundamentally restricted free inquiry. It’s common, and it has become so pervasive that honest liberals like Powers are writing books that alert us to the danger. The Silencing provides dozens and dozens of examples of “illiberal” leftists who use silencing their opponents as a preferred tactic.  

In the higher education sphere, I know how intolerant colleges and universities can be because I worked on several of the cases in Powers’ book when I was defense director and vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Take, for instance, the professor who wielded a box cutter against a “free speech wall” at Sam Houston State because someone had written a political statement against President Obama. The police later told the students that they were responsible for provoking the professor’s violence, so they had to censor the wall or take it down. 

Or take a lighter example, also from Powers’ book, Yale University’s ban of a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise because there is no room at Yale—at Yale—for the words, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be.” 

These cases are from the chapter “Intolerance 101.” They get worse in “Intolerance 201,” which reports that entire Christian student organizations have been banned from one campus after another for requiring that their leaders believe in the groups’ Christian mission. Yet this is not the real reason the groups have been banned, according to FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, who has followed such cases for more than a dozen years. He has seen “college after college…specifically angry at evangelical groups for their position on gay rights” look for ways to keep such groups off campus. 

Most colleges do promise and claim to encourage toleration. Yale alerts students that back before they were born, in 1975, Yale’s Woodward Report explained that intellectual advances require freedom to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” 

The exercise of this freedom is inherently unsettling. Nevertheless, Yale College tells its freshmen, “When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.” 

The principle is wonderful: free expression deserves honor, especially on a college campus. Like Yale, most private colleges promise to tolerate the widest diversity of ideas. They voluntarily offer the same level of speech protection that the First Amendment requires of public colleges. They have faculty handbooks that promise academic freedom. They claim to be in the business of advancing knowledge, correcting rather than reproducing the superstitions, taboos, errors, and biases of the campus culture. 

Yet, time after time, when the most intolerant sector of the campus rises in solidarity as a mob to declare “no room on our campus” for ideas deemed beyond civil comprehension, or for speakers they see as representing unacceptable minority views, college administrators lose their courage. Many faculty members also lose their courage and remain silent. 

How many faculty members have stood up for free speech at Yale over the past ten years, whether before or after First Amendment legend Floyd Abrams finally founded a free-speech center there? How many defended the inclusion of the infamous “Mohammed cartoons” after Yale University Press banned them from a scholarly book about the reaction to those very cartoons? I can’t recall a single one. 

From their silent role models on the faculty and in university leadership, students learn that silencing works. The mob learns that colleges like Brandeis, which disinvited women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali from campus due to intolerant complaints about her activism, will succumb to criticism rather than defend freedom. Powers provocatively and correctly calls what Brandeis did “appeasement.” 

Powers makes it clear that such intolerance comes not from the liberal left but from the “illiberal left.” Whether the illiberal left is declaring an idea so outrageous and dangerous it should be banned from a college campus, sniffing off or laughing off an idea so as to discredit it without addressing the point, or playing identity politics and delegitimizing a speaker no matter how good her argument, faculty members too often keep their heads down and let these tactics win.  

From their activist role models on the faculty, students learn to be activists themselves. They see that it’s easy to win political points and morally purify the public square merely by whining with the sophistication of a literary theorist. They use long words and long, seemingly erudite sentences to describe how oppressed they are, but they are whining all the same. (Good luck interpreting this British example complaining of “structural violence,” “Butler and the Politics of the Unintelligible,” though the essay leaves ambiguous whether the graduate student author is on the liberal left or the illiberal left.) 

From their activist role models and their silent ones, students conclude that silencing tactics are the right ones for winning an argument. That’s how college then operates for many students. Rather than developing their minds, college turns them into uncritical, intolerant advocates of illiberal politics. Students learn to be activists instead of debaters, posing as fragile water-lilies while they loudly cry out for “protection” from those who dare to disagree with them. 

Accordingly, Powers argues, students fail to learn how to win arguments through dialogue and persuasion. They miss out on the valuable college experience of vigorous argument that shakes your assumptions about yourself and the universe, but they do develop the bad intellectual habit of crying to authorities when they hear (or merely fear) opposing points of view. 

In contrast, higher education can enable a community of wisdom-seekers to deeply challenge one another’s beliefs and identities. The community value in academia is toleration en route to knowledge. There must be room for every idea, even the “unthinkable” and “unmentionable.” 

Powers puts it this way: 

Higher education should provide an environment to test new ideas, debate theories, encounter challenging information, and figure out what one believes. Campuses should be places where students [and faculty members, administrators, and visitors] are able to make mistakes without fear of retribution. 

Unfortunately, few professors, even tenured professors on the liberal left, are willing to stand up for toleration and the highest ideals of university life—a life they have chosen for themselves. To defend this life, far more of them need to acknowledge that intolerance is interfering with the fundamental ideals both of the university and civil society, as intolerance spreads among the media and the wider culture.  

Kirsten Powers, speaking as a journalist on the liberal left, is a critical voice of reason for persuading illiberal journalists to check their own biases and take a more tolerant approach. Her book’s exposure of similar biases in higher education should motivate liberal professors to promote toleration and free expression on campus for the sake of principle, intellectual progress, and the education of the next generation of leaders.

I encourage faculty members and university administrators who share our higher vision of a university, and who want to promote it on your campus, to contact me. We can change the culture of silencing by demonstrating the virtue of tolerant engagement.