The campus free speech problem—a phenomenon in which college administrators, faculty and students have taken both institutional and social steps to suppress freedom of speech at America’s colleges—seems only to be getting worse. Universities seem unwilling to course-correct on the matter, and more and more students seem to assume as a matter of course that free speech on their campuses will be radically suppressed on behalf of political correctness.
Change may be on the horizon, however—and from the federal government, no less.
“Under the Trump administration, federal power apparently will be directed toward…ensuring that free speech prevails on campus over officious administrators and student mobs.” So writes George Leef at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
The “dramatic turnabout” in the campus free speech debate came about in part when, late last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he declared that “the Department of Justice would be taking a vigorous role in countering the assaults on freedom of speech that have become increasingly common on college campuses.” As Sessions told the assembly, “We hope you will take part in the right of every American: the free, robust, and sometimes contentious exchange of ideas. As you exercise these rights, realize how precious, how rare, and how fragile they are.”
In response to the climate on college campuses today—what Sessions called “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought”—the federal government is taking action. Recently, Leef writes, the Justice Department filed “a Statement of Interest in a case involving a student at Georgia Gwinnett College who maintains that his First Amendment rights were violated when the school confined students to a tiny ‘free speech zone’ if they wanted to express themselves.” Georgia Gwinnett College also required that “students…obtain prior authorization from campus officials, to limit their expressive activity to a specified date and time, and to comply with the Student Code of Conduct’s prohibition of speech that ‘disturbs the comfort of persons(s).’”
“Statements of interest,” Leef explains, are “designed to explain to the court the interests of the United States in litigation between private parties.”
For the Department of Justice to issue a Statement of Interest in college free speech cases is a signal to both the judge and the defendant that the federal government is watching the proceedings. While private groups that have fought against restrictions on free speech (such as Alliance Defending Freedom and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) have a strong record of success, a Statement of Interest from the Justice Department is wind in their sails. College leaders who might think about taking on those or other organizations will think twice if they know the federal government is also a potential adversary.
Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would be issuing statements of interest in other cases as well.
Responding to the Attorney General’s denunciation of schools that allow the “heckler’s veto,” Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in a September 28 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “It’s been a banner year for hecklers, including violent ones. The University of North Carolina says that it ‘is not willing to risk anyone’s safety’ to allow white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus…. But the idea that free speech is in opposition with safety is nonsensical. You are not safe if you are under threat of physical attack for expressing or listening to political views.”
While some writers on the left say that there is little to no free speech problem on our campuses…the evidence is conclusive that the assault on free speech is widespread and increasing.
Leef points out one way in which colleges might be held accountable to higher free speech standards: “The National Association of Scholars’ proposed “Freedom to Learn Amendments” begin with several ideas the Education Department could implement on its own, such as requiring colleges to submit an annual report on their efforts at ensuring free speech, and detailing instances where those rights were violated and how the school addressed them.”
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