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Conservatives still face significant challenges on campus

How much can we demand of young people under so frightening a threat?

National Review writer David French has written a column at that publication that is probably too optimistic by half. Urging conservatives to re-assess the state of higher education in America, French writes that “there was a time, not long ago, when the situation in American higher education was much worse.” In recent memory, French writes, “there [was] a wave of vicious campus activism aimed at silencing heterodox speakers, and it was typically empowered by a comprehensive regime of speech codes that exposed students to formal university discipline for daring to utter dissenting views.” In those days, he says, “university officials would destroy newspapers, force students to change their religious beliefs as a condition of graduation,” and enact similar indignities on the student body.

Those days are done, French argues. “The era of the speech code is over. The few remaining unconstitutional campus speech policies lie largely dormant and unenforced, with university officials keenly aware of the risk of lawsuits.” With some exceptions, he claims, “speech on college campuses is legally free. If you engage in unpopular speech on a public campus and angry students demand your academic head, they’ll lose if you have the courage to persist.” In this environment, French writes, “the prevalence of conservative timidity is both worrisome and self-reinforcing.”

French is right in one respect: There have been significant gains on campuses in recent years, and there exists today a large network of lawyers and advocates to help beleaguered conservatives assert their rights on campus. And yet acting as if this is simply an open-and-shut case seems overly simplistic. One does not want to encourage “conservative timidity,” but one should at least acknowledge that it’s a perfectly understandable reaction to so much of campus life, particularly for students.

At the University of Missouri earlier this year, a liberal activist assaulted a conservative speaker there, throwing “fake bleach” on him in an attempt to terrorize him (and presumably other conservatives who might want to speak up). At the University of Texas-Austin, an anarchist group publicly threatened to dox any freshmen who joined conservative campus clubs. At the University of Chicago, one academic endured five years of “agony” for his research into pro-life sentiments in the scientific community. At a Catholic college last year, one student was hauled into a Title IX meeting after criticizing a campus drag show.

Even apolitical and/or liberal individuals often suffer the consequences of this hyper-political environment. Consider the recent campus critic of transgender ideology who came under a university investigation for her trans-skeptical comments. That woman identifies as an “intersectional feminist,” but it still didn’t protect her from retaliation from her school. Or consider the professor who called security on a black colleague in a case of mistaken identity: The school found him innocent of any racist intent, and yet it still suspended him and forbid him from speaking to any member of the university community. Officials at Oberlin, meanwhile, participated in a student mob against a local bakery because the owners of that establishment had attempted to stop some black patrons from shoplifting. The bakery suffered significantly from this unjust activism.

These are just several examples; there are many more. French is right that there is virtue in having “the courage to persist,” of course; the students and academics who soldier on through these brutal environments should be commended, and we should encourage other conservatives to do the same. Yet there is a difference in knowing the path and walking the path. We’ve seen what happens when campus liberals receive even mildly critical pushback against their ideology. At Evergreen State College a few years ago, when a professor (a progressive one, no less) refused to engage in a campus anti-white demonstration, he was targeted by an insane mob, eventually being run off campus. Meanwhile, student activists at that school took to patrolling the campus armed with weapons, in at least one case assaulting a student who was writing things they didn’t like. The president of the school, meanwhile, cheerfully kowtowed to many of their demands.

This was, of course, something of a rare occurrence. But there is no reason it can’t happen at any other school across the country. Campus progressivism is increasingly belligerent, irrational, immune to reason and hateful of dissent. Can we blame many conservatives, especially young student conservatives, for being hesitant to tempt this horrible beast?

French laments that “a few very public shame campaigns and terminations have an outsized deterrent effect.” Well, sure: That’s the point of those campaigns. (Voltaire knew something of that principle: “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”) It is easy to forget, having secured a meaningful career in conservative media and advocacy, just how scary it can be to be the target of an angry campus mob, and how strong is the desire to avoid it. Even tenured professors don’t want the headache of dealing with furious students, especially when pathetic, conciliatory university administrations are quick to give them what they want.

Students, meanwhile, are terrified of being targeted: They’re thinking of their careers, of course, and also the everyday environments in which they live, work and study. Suffering under the hateful anger of campus mobs is exhausting, terrifying and in many cases has major and lasting consequences. And in today’s hyper-saturated media environment, any student who is the target of a protest can have his name splashed over the front pages of The New York Times overnight. “If you suffer unlawful retaliation, there are platoons of lawyers willing and eager to take a swing at your antagonists,” French writes. Yet not all retaliation is unlawful—and it can have profoundly negative effects just the same.

Take, for instance, the presence of hundreds of “bias response teams” on college campuses, which encourage students to report each other to administrative officials should they utter something offensive. The supporters of these systems argue that the bias teams have no role in suppressing speech on campus. Yet the threat of being hauled before a diversity counselor, or having a mark placed on your permanent record because of something said in a private conversation, is enough to make members of the campus community think twice about speaking their mind.

“Your speech may be free, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Truly confronting illiberal political correctness requires personal courage,” French writes. He’s not wrong. A significant part of the fight for conservative principles lies in teaching conservatives to be bolder, and less afraid of the consequences of boldness. But let’s not downplay the issue here. We should be encouraging campus conservatives to be outspoken, forthright and brave. But we should also be very understanding of why, many times, they fall short of that goal.

MORE: Yes, there is a free speech problem on campus

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