The demise of academic freedom
When politically correct ‘speech police’ are given the upper hand
Last week, I was attacked by so-called “diversity” groups at Yale Law School because I had accepted an invitation from a student group (providing a forum for diversity of ideas), to speak on the meaning of the Birthright provision of the 14th Amendment. Without having heard what I would say, this speech-suppression coalition sought to prevent me from speaking by charging that I would utter “anti-immigrant rhetoric,” rest on “racist assumptions,” and express “racist and xenophobic ideas,” and “hateful ideologies.”
As a 1955 graduate of Yale Law School, it was difficult to believe that students who came to this excellent school would seek to prevent a diverse view from being expressed. After all, lawyers in the real world must be trained to hear their adversary’s differing views and be willing to answer them. Yale Law School itself proudly announces on its web site that it is “renowned as a center of constitutional law” — attained certainly by constant discourse, including differing views on the meaning of Constitutional provisions.
This was not simply an attack on my free speech right. It was an attack on all students’ right to obtain the benefit of free speech by hearing different views. Most disconcerting, it was not a single incident, but one of many in the nationwide movement at schools to suppress any thinking that the self-appointed student and faculty thought-police find unacceptable.
Almost simultaneously, the master of one Yale undergraduate residential grouping was viciously vocally attacked, and then required to grovel and apologize, for having the temerity to extol students’ free exercise of imagination in Halloween costumes over “institutional bureaucratic exercise of implied control over college students.” At the University of Missouri, a faculty member publicly shouted for “muscle” — physical enforcers, years ago known in Germany as Storm Troopers — to eject a reporter to prevent reporting what student demonstrators were doing and demanding. At the University of Texas, where pro-Palestinian demonstrators invaded a room reserved for an Israeli study event, the administration announced that it was investigating if the disrupters were treated properly, not addressing discipline of the disrupters
Yale’s president’s multi-page response to the antifree speech bullies was devoid of even a verbal reprimand of those bullies. Instead, he kowtowed to their crusade for “diversity” enhancement, without a mention of protecting the right to express diversity in ideas. He thus provides a green light to the politically correct speech police to continue their destruction of academic freedom.
Many similar recent examples have occurred showing academia’s leaders and teachers’ treatment of free
speech as undesirable, or, at least, not important enough to defend.
The American Association of University Professors, in the past, repeatedly declared that academia’s “common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” and that it “is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” Now, this axiom of freedom for teaching and learning is being bullied out of the vocabulary, with no opposition to those who prevent expressions of opinion they find “unacceptable.”
When faced with this demand that I be disinvited to speak, I could have stood on principle, insisting that I speak at a program where only my view would be expressed, consistent with the invitation. Leaders of the group that invited me proposed that I change the format to a debate with someone taking the opposing position that citizenship was granted on the sole condition of being physically in this country when born, without regard to the parents’ citizenship and whether or not the child remained domiciled in this country. I was frankly troubled by the appearance of rewarding intolerant bullies with acceding to their demand that I not speak unless “equal time” were given to their contrary position. Yale Law School has a long history of hosting speakers espousing one side of an issue, without conditioning the appearance on sharing the podium with a contrary view. I was being singled out only because these censors didn’t agree with me. Consistent with the proclaimed pro-free speech policy of university professors, I would have expected an outcry from Yale administration and faculty against this violation of academic freedom. But no, the thought-police bullies had scared them into silence.
I decided that speaking — the exercise of free speech — was more important than the principle that bullies not control who speaks without an opposing speaker. I therefore agreed to and did debate the issue. While I believe that I won the debate on the facts and the law, I leave that decision to the students and faculty who were there. What I know I won was establishing to students that free speech — the right of students to hear any opinion that an invited speaker wishes to express — must be protected against all adversity as essential to a free society. President Obama has spoken forcefully in support of that principle: “anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” Would that academia’s administrators and faculty demonstrate that they too recognize their responsibility to defend open and free speech. Gerald Walpin served as a U.S. inspector general from 2007 to 2009. He is the author of “The Supreme Court vs. The Constitution” (Significance Press, 2013).