In 2016, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recorded a record number of attempts to disinvite speakers.
That was the year CIA Director John Brennan couldn’t finish speaking at the University of Pennsylvania because left-wing protesters disapproved of Barack Obama’s CIA. It was the year that Janet Mock, a “black, native Hawaiian trans woman and activist,” pulled out of an event at Brown University because left-wing protesters were upset that Hillel, which to their mind deserved to be ostracized for its attachment to Israel, was one of the numerous co-sponsors. Left-wing protesters also tried to drive out the usual suspects, including Ben Shapiro and Charles Murray.
The total number of attempts, 43, wasn’t high in absolute terms, but it was more than double 2015.
2017 saw 36 dis-invitation attempts, the second highest number since FIRE began to record them in 2000. When protesters resorted to violence at UC-Berkeley and Middlebury College, it began to represent an alarming trend on our hands. Reasonable people disagreed about its character and importance, but observers had cause to wonder if free speech on campus was in jeopardy.
But the fever might have finally broken. In 2018, FIRE recorded only nine dis-invitation attempts, one of the lowest numbers in 19 years. If one assumed it was worth watching when dis-invitation attempts doubled in 2016, it is surely worth watching when they decline by 75 percent.
Although I think he is too dismissive of threats to free speech on campus, the political scientist Jeffrey Sachs is always worth reading on this topic. He’s the one who drew the public’s attention to the most recent FIRE data. Sachs goes over some of the reasons we might be seeing improvement.
Perhaps there are fewer dis-invitations because the protesters now run the show, and offensive speakers are no longer invited in the first place. But if protesters were making that much headway, that’s not what you’d expect. You’d expect, instead, for protesters to grow more daring and expand the range of speakers deemed unacceptable. When a strategy is having success, you engage in more of it, not less.
That is why I agree with Sachs that recent efforts to protect speech on campus are probably achieving something. I wrote about some of those efforts last year.
For example, in 2015, just ten campuses had adopted some version of the excellent University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression. Today, 56 campuses have done so, including 20 campuses in 2018 alone. FIRE has played a key role in pushing for the widespread adoption of the Chicago Statement, in which campuses pledge to preserve academic freedoms. But such statements don’t get adopted at colleges and universities without internal support.
Despite these “hopeful signs of a new culture of tolerance . . . taking hold on campus,” a conception of “social justice” according to which free speech might just be a devious trick meant to keep oppressed groups down has influential advocates on campus and is in some ways entrenched in academic bureaucracies. What these hopeful signs suggest is that Americans may not have entirely abandoned the notion that the university should remain a haven for heterodox ideas.