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The Lie At The Heart Of The College Free-Speech Debate Is That Free Speech Exists On Campus

Hipster Yasser Arafat
Image CreditYouTube/FOX 5 NY

If American universities had open discourse, they wouldn’t be havens for extremism, bigotry, and stupidity.


Should universities punish students who chant genocidal slogans aimed at Jews or sign petitions blaming women and children for their own murders? It’s a worthwhile debate about open discourse. But don’t let it obscure a more relevant fact: There is no free speech on campus.

Not really. Not in any way that matters. And certainly not for those who would dissent against the quackery of identitarianism, intersectionality, and “anti-colonialism” — and a host of other pseudointellectual “-isms” that currently infect education.

If American campuses actually housed robust, open discourse, these “elite” schools wouldn’t be churning out so many moral imbeciles and credentialed ignoramuses who detest the country and civilization that makes “protest” possible. The near uniformity in outlook speaks to the fact that dumb ideas go unchallenged in these hermetically sealed institutions.

It also goes without saying that if Harvard students were signing statements blaming black Americans for the existence of white supremacy or calling for an international Intifada against gay populations, we would already be awash in an overwrought national conversation about the limits of free expression.

Everyone knows, of course, that no such thing would ever happen in the first place. Defending free expression when one side can monopolize debate is worse than an empty gesture.

But even nominally controversial right-of-center ideas barely have a place in these schools. Academic freedom is a myth. Elite schools don’t explicitly prohibit dissenting views. They have merely expelled, neutralized, grandfathered out, and replaced those ideas. Outside of STEM programs and perhaps a few other fields, academia is now dominated by extremists and quacks.

Years ago, I can recall Colorado University making a big show of searching for a professor of “conservative thought” — or some such thing — by which it meant they were looking for a person to teach a set of ideas that would, in any healthy university setting, already be embedded in an array of disciplines. Even when schools ostensibly try to do the right thing, conservatism is treated as a set of exotic notions — something akin to Zoroastrianism.

And it is quite humorous watching donors act like this all somehow snuck up on society. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” the bestselling book that made William Buckley famous, was published in 1951. The opening line of the 1987 bestselling Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, by Harold Bloom, reads, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”

Malleable truths lead academics to believe in malleable morals, science, and history, which then compels them to contextualize things like genocide. That’s where we’re at.

Now, we can’t bore into the souls of those suddenly and passionately interested in defending the values of free expression. But we do know most of them are nowhere to be found when the state is setting up Ministries of Truth or conservative speakers are being chased from campuses — or, rather, never invited to speak, much less teach.

Indeed, free speech is treated very much like plagiarism at places like Harvard. There are different sets of rules for different people. When a Cornell professor tells a crowd that the wanton murder of Jewish babies is an “exhilarating and energizing” event, he has an incontrovertible right to free speech without consequence. When the conservative Parkland survivor’s invitation to attend Harvard gets rescinded over slurs sent in private texts written when he was 16, not so much. This is a microcosm of the modern-day college experience.

Now, none of this would matter very much if credentialed extremists — armed with an impenetrable emotional certitude about the world but little else — weren’t populating our institutions of journalism, government, and academia. The biggest problem with our rotting universities is that they still matter.

It is debatable whether the hipster-Yasser Arafat cosplayers who bully and harass Jewish kids until they lock themselves in a library are engaging in any legitimate form of expression. Fortunately, no one in the real world has any responsibility to hire them. Freedom of association also matters.

Still, the answer to this kind of bigotry isn’t to give Jewish students special DEI coverage to protect them from ugly speech. Rather, and there is no panacea, universities should be ridding themselves of all DEI protections so everyone has the same opportunities to speak. Not only Jewish students but students who hold other heterodox views — say, a belief in God or a belief that skin color doesn’t define a person or a belief that the American founding was a windfall for humankind. They just need the same freedoms the pro-terrorist crowd already enjoys.

Or, to put in language a Harvard president might understand, let them all speak their “truth.”

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