American colleges and universities are hothouses of hypocrisy, and the principal exhibit is that while their spokesmen talk endlessly about their commitment to openness, tolerance, critical thinking, diversity, and so on, many of them have adopted policies designed to stifle the expression of unpopular sentiments and empower certain groups to punish others for having the temerity to speak their minds.
In Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, Donald Downs, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, gives us a history of the rise and decline (fall would be putting it too strongly) of the movement against free speech on American campuses. It’s more than just a history, though. Downs also makes a strong philosophical case against restrictions on free speech. In both efforts, he succeeds wonderfully—the history of speech codes is carefully chronicled, and the reader is left with no doubt that their institution was a stupendous folly.
What makes Downs’s book so compelling is that as a faculty member he was in the thick of the battle over the speech code that was adopted at the University of Wisconsin. Not only that, but he initially supported the code, believing that the university administration could “strike a reasonable balance” between freedom of expression and speech that might cause “trauma and moral harm.”
That view did not survive long once Downs came to see how speech codes actually worked. He writes, “By the early 1990s it was becoming evident how the speech codes and the ideologies that they represented had hampered intellectual honesty. Many colleagues and students related that they felt as if they were walking on eggshells in class when talking about racially and sexually sensitive topics—even though these were among the most important social and political topics of our time.”
Far from increasing civility on campus—the justification ritually advanced in favor of codes—Downs could see that they were being aggressively used to silence and harass people who challenged the ideas that are dear to the multiculturalist worldview. The marketplace of ideas was in danger of being replaced with a timid silence born of the fear that saying the wrong thing could at any time land one in a nightmare of Inquisition-like procedures. The supposed shield for civility was in fact being wielded as a sword against students and professors who said anything that bothered members of the “protected” groups.
The first part of the book is an analysis of the speech-code phenomenon. Downs locates the roots of the movement in the illiberal instincts of many advocates of “multiculturalism,” who want to criminalize any difference of opinion with them. Although few had read Herbert Marcuse, the spirit of his book Repressive Tolerance animates the speech-code enthusiasts. Marcuse argued that free speech was actually repressive because it allegedly put status quo ideas in a position of “dominance” and suppressed the voices of dissent. His solution was to suppress ideas critical of his radical Marxist notions.
Central to the project of instituting and enforcing speech codes was (and is) the ideology of victimhood, the idea that groups which were arguably treated unfairly in the past hold special rights in the present, rights that protect them against “hurtful” speech. Downs argues that the effort to redress historical wrongs through the restriction of free speech merely “infantilizes” the supposed beneficiaries by rendering them incapable of handling open discourse.
The second part of the book consists of four case studies: Columbia’s sexual-misconduct policy, the anti-free speech movement at the University of California, the speech code at the University of Pennsylvania culminating in the absurd “water buffalo” incident, and the rise and fall of the speech codes at the University of Wisconsin. Each study introduces the reader to individuals who participated in the battles and their reasons for having done so. The stories are replete with real victims (students and professors who were pilloried for having offended in an innocent and trivial way some “protected” person or group), real villains (the speech-code aggressors and administrators who went along with their demands), and real heroes (people who fought the blatant unfairness of the speech-code procedures).
One of the heroes is Professor Alan Kors, who single-handedly took on the administration at Penn to defend a student facing disciplinary action for making an allegedly “insensitive” remark to students who were distracting him from his studies. That episode launched Kors and attorney Harvey Silverglate on a mission to expose infringements on free speech. Their book The Shadow University (reviewed in The Freeman) helped to make free speech on campus a hot issue.
Downs sums his book up beautifully with a quotation from Shira Diner, the Wisconsin valedictorian in 1997: “For the past four years we have been cheated out of the education which this University should be providing because of a speech code imposed on the faculty which restricts what they can and cannot say in our classes. We have a right to be challenged with ideas that are not easy and may hurt us. We deserve nothing less if we expect to find the truth.”