Commentary Magazine


Topic: campus

We Can’t Afford to Take Free Speech for Granted

A bit over a year ago, I wrote here about Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. Lukianoff is, of course, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that defends free speech on campus without regard to the politics of the speaker. It is a crucial mission as free speech should not be an à la carte privilege. Alas, too often on campus these days, the temptation to censor and repress trumps the willingness or ability to defend shaky, controversial premises.

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A bit over a year ago, I wrote here about Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. Lukianoff is, of course, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that defends free speech on campus without regard to the politics of the speaker. It is a crucial mission as free speech should not be an à la carte privilege. Alas, too often on campus these days, the temptation to censor and repress trumps the willingness or ability to defend shaky, controversial premises.

Lukianoff has written a brilliant new essay entitled “Freedom from Speech,” released as part of the Encounter Broadside series, short and accessible booklets that tackle key contemporary issues. Lukianoff begins by chronicling events in academic year 2013-2014, an annus horribilis for free speech. Media personalities lost their jobs for saying something controversial; a basketball team owner lost his franchise for stupid, racist remarks; and a Silicon Valley CEO was forced to resign after it emerged he gave $1,000 to a charity seeking to ban same-sex marriage.

Lukianoff addresses several issues head-on. For example, he clarifies the difference between the First Amendment and free speech, an important distinction as those prone to punishing speech often argue that free speech binds the government, and not private employers. Here’s what he has to say:

Though often used interchangeably, the concept of freedom of speech and the First Amendment are not the same thing. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press as they relate to duties of the state and state power, freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values. These values incorporate healthy intellectual habits, such as giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right.

In addressing the current situation, Lukianoff harkens back to Unlearning Liberty when he observed how “Administrators [on campus] have been able to convince well-meaning students to accept outright censorship by creating the impression that freedom of speech is somehow the enemy of social progress.” Such attitudes have increasingly permeated society as a generation of intellectually coddled and protected students react to offense or challenge with an authoritarian impulse.

The scariest thing about the free speech crisis is how it has snowballed. It has become a slow motion train wreck: Any honest observer can see how Orwellian universities are becoming, and the silliness that results. Lukianoff looks to Europe where the assault on free speech has progressed further and deeper. He cites how a British parliamentarian was arrested in April 2014 for “religious/racial harassment” for quoting from a book by Winston Churchill, and how the Europeans have embraced a ‘right to be forgotten’ which essentially allows them to control what is written and said about them and their actions.

But Lukianoff argues that universities alone are not to blame. “The ‘It’s all academia’s fault’ argument cannot explain…why higher education, which is an institution that relies on being a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ would turn against free speech in the first place.” Rather, he suggests that the cultural roots of such censorship go deeper. “People all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” he argues. “Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.”

Lukianoff continues to examine why the desire for comfort will lead the threats to freedom of speech to get worse, the “right not to be offended” and the “expectation of confirmation,” and the phenomenon of trigger warnings (which I wrote about here).

While a depressing read—only because it shows the reality of the problem—Lukianoff is not willing to throw up his arms and throw in the towel. He writes:

I am constantly on the lookout for potential cures for this problem. Litigation plays an important role in the fight, as does having students engage in proper Oxford-style debates (like we see today in the Intelligence Squared series). Comedians and satirists may also join the pushback against the infinite care ethic; after all, it is blazingly clear that politically correct censorship and comedy are natural enemies. And, of course, nothing can replace teaching students at every level of education that old-fashion intellectual habits of epistemic humility, giving others benefit of the doubt, and actually listening to opposing opinions.

Sometime during my freshmen year at Yale University, I took “Introduction to Psychology” (taught by Peter Salovey, now president of the university). Salovey was an excellent teacher, although he sometimes seemed to sacrifice rigor for popularity. Still, he assigned a short but extremely valuable booklet that has made me far more critical of what I read to this day. It was “How to Lie with Statistics,” which, as of today, is still the #1 bestseller in statistics on Amazon more than 60 years after it was first published. No student could go wrong with that book on their list. It would be just as valuable it incoming freshmen not only read that booklet, but also added “Freedom from Speech” to their summer reading. Universities could do much worse than encourage incoming students to keep an open mind from day one.

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The Real Jewish Fight on Campus

Israel’s treatment on campus is a perpetual concern of a broad swath of American Jews, and rightly so. The very idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the policies that state’s citizens elect to follow, regularly receives there unwarranted criticisms that might play in the European mainstream, but have little currency in the United States off the quad.

The anxiety consequently produced nevertheless often manages to miss the true nature of the challenge on campus, as well as the reality of Jewish life there. A couple of articles published in the past few days offer refreshing windows into what things look like at ground level.

Kenneth L. Marcus, the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy of the divide in the Jewish community between “quietists” and “alarmists,” the former being those who deny that there is any anti-Semitism on campus, and the latter being those who “see danger behind every corner.”

Neither camp, Marcus notes, is entirely correct. The alarmists too often ignore the extraordinary richness of opportunities for Jewish life on campus along with the demise of an institutional anti-Semitism that once barred Jews from entry or made their lives difficult while there. The quietists see those opportunities perhaps too well, ignoring troubling undertones in the discussion of Jews and the Jewish state.

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Israel’s treatment on campus is a perpetual concern of a broad swath of American Jews, and rightly so. The very idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the policies that state’s citizens elect to follow, regularly receives there unwarranted criticisms that might play in the European mainstream, but have little currency in the United States off the quad.

The anxiety consequently produced nevertheless often manages to miss the true nature of the challenge on campus, as well as the reality of Jewish life there. A couple of articles published in the past few days offer refreshing windows into what things look like at ground level.

Kenneth L. Marcus, the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy of the divide in the Jewish community between “quietists” and “alarmists,” the former being those who deny that there is any anti-Semitism on campus, and the latter being those who “see danger behind every corner.”

Neither camp, Marcus notes, is entirely correct. The alarmists too often ignore the extraordinary richness of opportunities for Jewish life on campus along with the demise of an institutional anti-Semitism that once barred Jews from entry or made their lives difficult while there. The quietists see those opportunities perhaps too well, ignoring troubling undertones in the discussion of Jews and the Jewish state.

Another article published in The Times of Israel by Seffi Kogen, a student at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, laments the “disappearance” of Jewish students from Israel-themed events, diagnosing pre-college Jewish educational experiences that teaches them that campuses are a hotbed of anti-Israel protests and speakers and arms them with debating points, only to find that students don’t show up to do anything much related to Israel except for those rare annual rites of dramatic anti-Israel protest. He thinks the solution is getting young Jews “to love to discuss Israel and think about Israel, and not only to fight for Israel.”

Kogen’s take represents the downside for Israel’s case when young people are fed too many alarming stories before they get to school while not being told enough about the less dramatic but more costly pervasive negativity in the attitude toward Israel taken by far too many young people who don’t know or care much about the Middle East. If you are taught only to fight, but not to persuade, and only to be concerned about a speech in the student union, and not a conversation in a dorm room, it’s not surprising that you find yourself shrugging most days and getting animated only when someone puts a mock wall up.

Of course, as a general matter, it’s easier to get concerned about dramatic displays than subtle remarks. Dealing effectively with the latter, which is probably of far greater consequence than the former, means getting better at teaching young people how to get beyond pro-Israel talking points and into the substance of the justice underlying the cause of Jewish independence.

It’s harder, but that’s what we’ll have to do if we really want to improve the way Israel is talked about on campus.

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Don’t Dismiss the Moral Power of Protest

A few days ago, a video was posted online of an anti-Israel protest at Portland State University. Following an increasingly common tactic among campus anti-Israelists, the protesters filled a few rows of the audience for a talk on Israel by CBN contributor Erick Stackelbeck with people wearing tape over their mouths and then silently walkingd out, holding signs and – in a few uncontrolled cases – shouting slogans.

As foolish as the protest looks, it would be unwise to dismiss its potential power or what it says about the nature of the view of Israel endorsed by a small yet committed minority at many American universities.

This particular video is interesting mostly because Stackelbeck invites the protesters to take the tape off their mouths, stay for his talk, and then debate him afterwards. It’s an effective way to make them look foolish and is a tactic other pro-Israel speakers, faced with similar displays at other universities, should consider.

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A few days ago, a video was posted online of an anti-Israel protest at Portland State University. Following an increasingly common tactic among campus anti-Israelists, the protesters filled a few rows of the audience for a talk on Israel by CBN contributor Erick Stackelbeck with people wearing tape over their mouths and then silently walkingd out, holding signs and – in a few uncontrolled cases – shouting slogans.

As foolish as the protest looks, it would be unwise to dismiss its potential power or what it says about the nature of the view of Israel endorsed by a small yet committed minority at many American universities.

This particular video is interesting mostly because Stackelbeck invites the protesters to take the tape off their mouths, stay for his talk, and then debate him afterwards. It’s an effective way to make them look foolish and is a tactic other pro-Israel speakers, faced with similar displays at other universities, should consider.

While it is true, as Joel Pollak notes, that the students’ refusal to debate is a sign of an anti-intellectualism that has taken hold at far too many schools, there is a powerful statement within the silent protest that anti-Israelists are trying to latch onto. For if you believe that Jewish independence is morally repugnant, it is appropriate to refuse to debate those who cast themselves as its defenders. The act of debate itself, the granting of a platform in a university, is itself a kind of approval, if not for the totality of an ideology then at least for its place within respectable debate. Because anti-Israelists are driven by the conviction that Israel is not a topic worthy of debate, it makes sense for them to refuse to do so.

Conveying that message, along with the idea that anti-Israelists speak for the center of campus opinion, is precisely the idea behind staging such a protest.

It’s a view many who support Israel should find easier to understand than they perhaps realize. It was only five years ago that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was granted his bit of real estate on the campus of Columbia University, and many were the voices who found it appalling. And rightly so. Letting him in the door conveyed the idea on a significant stage that he stood for ideas worth debating, not standing against. So too can you find this thinking in a recent article criticizing Harvard’s hosting of a “one state solution” conference by the esteemed Alan Dershowitz, who, in pointing out that a conference around a question like “Are the Palestinians Really a People?” would likely find no sanction on campus was reminding us that there are limits to the questions we consider. Though those limits may often be misplaced, it is undoubtedly true that it is good for there to be some.

Thankfully, anti-Israelists committed to the idea that Israel does not deserve even a hearing on campus are no more than a small fraction of nearly any school, and thus incapable of pushing pro-Israel voices off campus. But to ensure their ranks do not grow, and they do not succeed in making Zionism an ideology not even permitted a defense, we’ll have to recognize the potential power of their strategy and get better at reaching the vast middle whose views remain up for grabs.

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