Are liberals silencing free speech on university campuses? The First Amendment of the Constitution asserts, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” But do other groups, individuals or even institutions of higher learning abridge or inhibit free speech? Should they? On university campuses across the United States this is a hot topic. This is surprising, since universities are where we would most expect to see the greatest freedom of speech as students and faculty wrestle with big questions of politics and human life.
Kirsten Powers, a liberal columnist and contributor for USA Today, the Daily Beast and Fox News, is the 2015 Constitution Day speaker at Weber State University. Powers recently has written a book, “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.” In it, she explores the issue of free speech on university campuses, in the media and in society at large. Powers argues there is no longer an open and fair exchange of ideas on the political left in the United States. Instead, what she reports is the increasing tendency of the left to delegitimize, shame and silence “people who express ideological, philosophical, or political views that don’t line up with their preferences.” Dissent from liberal orthodoxy “is cast as racism, misogyny, bigotry, phobia, and violence.”
The examples in Powers’ book are numerous, but those from university settings are perhaps the most relevant to our own discussion of free speech at Weber State. For example, Powers devotes a chapter to what she calls “commencement shaming.” Last year, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was invited as the 2014 commencement speaker at Smith College in Massachusetts. But this was not to be — a small group of Smith students and faculty protested Lagarde’s appearance because, they argued, Lagarde and the IMF are egregious examples of “oppression, ethnocentrism, and imperialism,” which are “ruining the planet.” Lagarde, one of the most accomplished women in the world, according to Powers, decided to withdraw as commencement speaker to preserve the “celebratory spirit of commencement” day for Smith graduates.
Powers argues that in many cases these students are protesting the notion that they should be exposed to a diversity of opinion and the free clash of ideas in classroom discussion and/or in the texts they study, some of which might not conform to modern sensibilities.
For example, should Aristotle be banished from campus as a misogynist because he did not write favorably about the role of women in political life? Is it impossible that women can learn something important about leadership and political life from Aristotle?
Students who demand trigger warnings on class syllabi and safe places away from challenging or even uncomfortable arguments are asking us to exempt them from the education they came to university to receive. Should we?
Or is a university the very place students come to have their assumptions and opinions rigorously challenged? The most famous passage in Plato’s “Republic” is the “Image of the Cave,” an image of citizens who literally are chained to the opinions fed to them by the leaders of a city. The image suggests that unless we are challenged to think through the opinions we take for granted, we never become fully thoughtful, educated human beings.
Weber State University, the American Democracy Project and the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service, partly supported by a generous grant from the Jack Miller Center, have invited Kirsten Powers to campus to discuss this heated topic of free speech. Weber State believes the university is exactly the place where the free exchange of ideas should take place in a civil, respectful way.
Carol McNamara is director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.