In his article in The Chronicle Review, David Bromwich surveys the dismal state of free speech on college campuses. He observes that college faculty members not only comply with students’ mob-driven censorship, but professors have also begun to stifle speech themselves. Bromwich exhorts faculty and administration to restore open dialogue as an essential feature of education. Freedom of speech is a topic of great interest to the Jack Miller Center and was the theme of this year’s Constitution Day Initiative. As part of this initiative, JMC helped colleges across the country bring scholars and leaders to their campuses to discuss the place of free speech in America’s Constitutional order. JMC also launched a new academic resource center, which explores the history, law, and theory of free speech.
The New Campus Censors
Students are leading the assault on free speech–with faculty and administrators acting as enablers.
Three or four years ago, in the early days of campus protests against unwelcome speakers, the censors sometimes said in their own defense: “This isn’t about free speech.” The disclaimer served to lighten the burden of apology for crowd behavior that most Americans distrust. As the protesters saw it, the speakers who got shouted down or who canceled engagements under a threat of violence were opportunists of free speech. But this was apt to sound evasive. What honest intellectual forum ever subjected sprees to a test of motives?
In any case, the argument that “it isn’t really about free speech” has largely been dropped by the censors. They are now likelier to say that there never was freedom of speech, anywhere, and that we shouldn’t expect to find it in colleges. The primary duty of institutions of higher education is rather to create a space for qualified speech; and we should be aware that a wrongly chosen or unqualified speaker may stir up controversy and “stifle productive debate.” That phrase came from a campus letter circulated by a group of Wellesley College professors after a speech by Laura Kipnis. By this logic, productive debate is to be understood as quite a different thing from open debate. But who, then, is qualified to speak on campus?