Why Do Universities Design Policies to Restrict Free Speech?

Americans are forever on the lookout for institutions that can threaten their most cherished right — that of free speech. But even the most paranoid among us would not think that the place where the freedom of speech is suppressed the most is actually somewhere that should be heavily invested in protecting it: college campuses. [...]

Americans are forever on the lookout for institutions that can threaten their most cherished right — that of free speech. But even the most paranoid among us would not think that the place where the freedom of speech is suppressed the most is actually somewhere that should be heavily invested in protecting it: college campuses. According to Sohrab Ahmari writing for The Wall Street Journal, the modern university is “the most authoritarian institution” in the country today.

Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is unlikely to disagree with this assessment. For more than a decade, FIRE has been fighting attempts by university administrations to restrict the first amendment rights of their students and faculty.

In an interview with Ahmari, Lukianoff specifically drew attention to a recent incident at Fordham University. After the school’s College Republicans invited popular conservative firebrand Ann Coulter to speak, Fordham’s president Joseph McShane took the unprecedented step of publicly condemning the invitation and the people responsible for it in a letter addressed to the entire student body.

To be clear, Mr. McShane didn’t block Ms. Coulter’s speech, but he said that her presence would serve as a “test” for Fordham. A day later, the students disinvited Ms. Coulter. Mr. McShane then praised them for having taken “responsibility for their decisions” and expressing “their regrets sincerely and eloquently.” Mr. Lukianoff says that the Fordham-Coulter affair took campus censorship to a new level: “This was the longest, strongest condemnation of a speaker that I’ve ever seen in which a university president also tried to claim that he was defending freedom of speech.”

In an interview with Ahmari, Lukianoff describes himself as a lifelong Democrat and a passionate believer in both abortion rights and gay marriage. Yet, he frequently finds himself defending Conservatives and libertarians because the liberal atmosphere on most college campuses makes these groups more at risk for having their First Amendment rights restricted.

To be clear, Mr. McShane didn’t block Ms. Coulter’s speech, but he said that her presence would serve as a “test” for Fordham. A day later, the students disinvited Ms. Coulter. Mr. McShane then praised them for having taken “responsibility for their decisions” and expressing “their regrets sincerely and eloquently.”

Mr. Lukianoff says that the Fordham-Coulter affair took campus censorship to a new level: “This was the longest, strongest condemnation of a speaker that I’ve ever seen in which a university president also tried to claim that he was defending freedom of speech.”

And it’s hard to hold out much hope for things changing in the near future. On the contrary, according to Lukianoff, university administrators almost never formally walk back the statements they’ve made even in the cases where FIRE prevails in court. Meanwhile, in a poll taken in 2010, less than 40% of college students believed that it was safe to hold an opinion considered unpopular on their campus.

The numbers were even more dire when the same question was posed to staff and faculty. Fewer than 20% thought that they would suffer no consequences if their unpopular views became public.

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