he 2016 college commencement season brought American higher education’s year of the crybullies to a close. It was the academic year Jerelyn Luther screamed obscenities at Yale’s Silliman College headmaster, Nicholas Christakis, because he dared to “create an intellectual space” instead of a “safe space” for his students. “Uncomfortable Learning,” a Williams College student group whose mission is to host controversial speakers, canceled an event with John Derbyshire because his politically incorrect comments on race made Williams president Adam Falk too uncomfortable. Black Lives Matter protests erupted on more than 75 campuses, including at Dartmouth, where activists took over a library and shouted obscenities at white students who declined to join them.
Free speech proponents have decried the trend of craven administrators appeasing the crybullies, and called on colleges to uphold their commitments to free speech. But reciting pledges to free speech means little when the term itself has become contested ground. Campus activists have identified “free speech,” as one more space to “reclaim.” Many free speech enemies regard themselves as its champions.
Take Melissa Click, the University of Missouri film professor who called for “some muscle” to oust a student journalist from a Black Lives Matter protest in a public area of campus. The face of the new campus intolerance, Click defended herself as a proponent of free speech. Restraining a reporter was important, she said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, to protect the speech of the protesters, who required time to refine their message.
In April, students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst shouted down Christina Hoff Sommers at a panel on campus feminism. One female student, repeatedly yelling “F*** you!” and raising both fists at Sommers, reacted in shock to the moderator’s warning that he would remove hecklers: “But my free speech!”
The U Mass protester was only expressing what Kate Manne and Jason Stanley, philosophy professors at Cornell and Yale, argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few months before—that conservatives have turned “free speech” into a muzzle for dissent. According to these scholars, accusing “coddled” protesters of “attacking free speech” is just another way of oppressing student activists, who are actually “exercising” free speech “to call for institutional reform.” Therefore Jerelyn Luther’s demands for “safe spaces” at Yale had enhanced campus discourse, both by expressing her own voice and by amplifying the voices of others who would be better heard in such spaces.
Manne and Stanley’s defense of censorship in the name of free speech has struck a chord in college students. Last year’s incoming freshmen rate themselves as overwhelmingly devoted to free speech and diversity. In fall 2015, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which has surveyed incoming freshmen since the 1960s, asked students to rate their commitments to tolerance and freedom. Eighty-six percent considered themselves above average for “cooperating with diverse people,” and 64 percent for “openness.” Eighty percent responded that they are better than average at tolerance, and 71 percent answered they are above average at discussing controversial topics.
But when faced with controversial topics, how do these students respond? Even as students congratulated themselves for their tolerance, the UCLA survey found record-breaking levels of intolerance. Forty-three percent of freshmen agreed with the statement “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus”—numbers higher than in any year except 2004. An all-time high of 71 percent—the same percentage that reported above-average abilities in discussing controversial issues—reported believing “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus.”
UCLA’s survey results—while astonishing—are not anomalous. In April, a Gallup study found nearly half of students receptive to restricting speech for reasons like those Melissa Click offered. Forty-eight percent said that colleges should curtail media access to campus events when protesters want to be left alone. To a significant number of students, banning reporters from campus and disinviting speakers do not curtail free speech, but merely exercise it.
At Harvard this spring, a Black Lives Matter group occupied the student lounge and tore down “offensive” posters. When the dean of students announced that free speech protects the right of all students to post flyers, the activists divided a bulletin board into halves labeled “silenced” and “privileged,” and moved “offensive” posters to the “privileged” side. To these campus activists, free speech as traditionally understood is oppressive.
Winning the battle for free speech now requires defining it, not just defending it. In doing so, it is necessary to buttress the political right to free speech with the larger philosophic concept of intellectual freedom: man’s natural capacity to inquire, ask questions, depart from received orthodoxy, and form and hold his own conclusions. Only in this context is the significance of free speech clear. Free speech is the public expression of free thought. Intellectual freedom is the wellspring from which free speech flows. Curtailing free speech impinges intellectual freedom. Shouting down a speaker robs listeners of the opportunity to hear and learn, and robs the speaker of his own speech. A central reason to value open debate is its capacity to show us the truth—even if only by voicing errors that make the truth easier to apprehend. Free speech is central to political and moral reasoning, in which citizens express their conclusions and weigh them against competing claims. Shouting matches, which appeal to force over reasoned reflection, cannot accomplish this.
Reaping the benefits of such freedom requires respect for unorthodox thinkers. Free speech and intellectual freedom, like religious freedom, are important because they respect deeply personal claims of natural rights. No man should force another to proclaim or pretend to believe something he does not. For this reason, advocates of free speech need not demand a “diversity of opinion” for diversity’s sake. Intellectual diversity deserves respect not because diversity has some innate good, but because it is the inevitable outcome of free minds.
Some students, offended by crybully protestors, have begun to rediscover and defend these principles. Groups like the Princeton Open Campus Coalition and Harvard Students for Free Speech have stood up for intellectual freedom against their classmates’ intolerance. Self-identified liberal students have written to their campus newspapers to distance themselves from their far-left censorious peers. The 2016-17 academic year could see free speech make a comeback, but only if we explain and insist on public respect for the natural freedom of the mind.