Is Free Speech Really Challenged on Campus?

Two historians debate the role of universities in fostering a commitment to the open exchange of ideas.

Students protest against Trump in Manhattan, New York
Students of New York University gather to join with other colleges across the nation to participate in #SanctuaryCampus, a protest against President-elect Donald Trump in Manhattan, New York in November 2016. (Bria Webb / Reuters)

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Morton Keller: America's campuses are, for the most part, diverse and relatively easy-going places, where the excesses of adolescence are tempered by the dictates of the curriculum. But occasionally, the world outside imposes itself with unusual vigor, and the always-vulnerable principles of free speech and diverse thought take a battering.

Most notably, this occurred at German universities in the wake of Hitler's assumptions of power in 1933. Jews, Socialists, and Communists were massively expelled, and their works were publicly burned.

An infinitely less-destructive time was the McCarthyite era in the United States, when Communism and the Soviet Union became objects of widespread fear and loathing. This had some impact on higher education, where a few academics lost their jobs and a larger number kept their more-controversial thoughts to themselves. It had more visible effects on Hollywood and other corporate employers.

Now we appear to be in a new era of groupthink, where ill-defined terms—racism  and sexism, most notably—are the stigmata of choice. This is in good part an accompaniment of the reaction to the Donald Trump presidency. But I think it has deeper roots than that. Its primary advocates are part of a left-wing, anti-American tradition that has long been part of the American intellectual scene. It has gained strength in recent times from fractious but extreme elements of old and new strains of political thought: anarchism, socialism, feminism, black nationalism.

The most conspicuously organized presence on today’s anti-free speech college stage is Antifa, whose expansive definition of who and what is “Nazism” extends to just about everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. There are other, arguably more important elements fueling the current scene: Trump most notably, but also the inherently hierarchical, predominantly white and still (this is shakier) male makeup of campus faculty and administration. Finally—this is the most slippery, but also may be the most important part of the mix—there is now a student generation raised permissively and seldom challenged in its beliefs, and hence uniquely unready to face the clash of ideas which has always been the theoretical core, but less so the practical reality, of higher education.

This, I think, goes far to account for the current campus tone. (It also suggests that it is likely to fade with a changing political, social, and generational order.) I don't agree that the speaker-disrupters are seeking a debate. They couldn't care less what Charles Murray or other victims of their actions actually have to say about public issues. Like their pro-Nazi and pro-McCarthy counterparts, it is sufficient to declare that the victim is a Jew—or a Communist—or a “racist” or a “sexist.”

Julian Zelizer: My view is that, generally, the state of college campuses is pretty good. When I hear laments about the demise of free speech at universities and colleges, and certainly about the new fascism in university life, my instinct is that these commentators are taking some examples of outlandish protest and crass behavior to paint an inaccurate picture of the majority of students. For instance, the behavior at Middlebury overshadows Murray’s speech at Columbia University soon after, which was uneventful. Murray spoke, people listened, and everyone went home. At my own institution, the debate over whether to rename the Woodrow Wilson School received much more attention than the long list of demands about curriculum and faculty that the students were putting on the table.

The truth is that campus politics have always elicited a fierce reaction from critics who say that the rabble-rousers are undermining institutions and preventing a free flow of debates. This was the very argument made against student radicals in the 1960s as they pushed for free speech on campus, advocated for civil rights, and mobilized against the war.

Some senior liberal faculty, many of whom would later become neo-conservatives, blasted them for their distrust of institutions. Others worried that the younger students were moving too far away from core issues that had animated the party since the New Deal. Yet today, many valorize many of the causes that they pushed for. Without those “rabble rousers” we might not have had the very necessary and important pressure against a disastrous war in Vietnam. I heard the same arguments, informally, from liberal professors during my own college education in the 1980s when Reaganite conservative students started to organize.

Today, I think there are many students who are interested in what is dismissed as “identity politics.” I prefer to think of this as the politics of social justice. Much of the debates, as you argue, do involve racism and sexism, as well as xenophobia, which in my mind are not “ill-defined” terms, but very serious forms of discrimination with deep institutional and cultural roots within the U.S. Many students and faculty have taken seriously the work of social scientists and historians who have shown how these and other forms of discrimination are deeply imbedded in the organization as well as culture of institutions such as those of higher education. To ignore this seems ahistorical. When students turn our attention to expanding the kind of curricular discussions that are available, the diversity of the faculty, and questioning the persons we seek to memorialize, those are very legitimate questions that grow out of the protests from the 1960s.

They are not whitewashing intellectual inquiry—but just the opposite. Rather than curtailing debate, many students (of course not all) are actually seeking deeper engagement with our history and the way our education functions. I personally am happy that they are paying attention. While some protests against speakers take ugly turns, something that is not particular to our current era, much of the drive to challenge figures invited to campus shows that students are actually paying attention and listening. To compare most of this either to German universities in the 1930s or the McCarthyite era seems to be off-base, and in some ways, recreating that kind of hysteria rather than demanding open dialogue.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge there are legitimate reasons to criticize the way our universities work. While I agree it is important to keep the classroom open as an arena of free flowing ideas, that does not mean we can’t accept students who are thinking and debating the world around them—just as students have done for decades. African American students have rightly raised concerns about how they are treated on campus, whether by campus police or simply in informal social settings. There have been debates that include positions, many of which I disagree with, about how universities invest their money or for thinking about the physical structure of higher learning so as to create the most inviting atmosphere for diverse, pluralistic, and robust debate. The need to take seriously the way university practices impact the environment is not frivolous but rather urgent.

Antifa, which has been front and center since President Trump decided to focus his attention on them in the wake of his refusal to take a strong stand against the white extremist groups who marched in Charlottesville, are hardly representative of campus life. I’m not sure why they should be a stand-in for college life. They certainly are not the primary force on most campuses.

The criticism that you and others make about some students going too far is more than legitimate, but I fear that the reaction to the protests is going too far. Given what we have seen in the last few months of presidential politics, it seems more urgent than ever we have students questioning, challenging and engaging the world around them. We might not agree with all their positions and we might think that that some go too far—but we should be pleased to see that there are students doing more than obsessing about their social-media platforms and checking out.

Keller: Of course most students, now as always, are more caught up with their
lives present and future than with the state of discussion and the flow of ideas on campus. And of course there is much to commend in the greater openness in our time to diverse sorts of people. But it is hard to deny that on the leading campuses today there is a potentially stifling atmosphere of political correctness that favors ethnic and sexual diversity, but is less inclined to think so when it comes to Chinese American applicants, and students with a conservative turn of mind.

Of course I favor the student inclination to question authority. And of course the excesses at Berkeley and Middlebury (and Yale) are hardly representative. But the idea of free speech on campus, like the idea of democracy itself, is always subject to the corrosive inclination of the ideologically committed to get their way not so much through the open exchange of views as by the forcible ejection of views they find objectionable. This, as you rightly point out, is the work primarily of a small minority. But as the Founders so well recognized, perpetual vigilance is the price of liberty. That's why I react strongly when someone so well-informed as yourself dismisses campus thuggery as just a call for debate.

This old issue has taken on new light in the wake of the cultural and information revolutions of our time. How do you foster a readiness to listen to different ideas when so much of the culture—both popular and high—is swept by forces that work against such a disposition? True, the imposition of political correctness on the campus still has far to go. But that does not mean that it is out of order to discuss how far it has already gone.

Zelizer:  This is a place where faculty and administrators have a big role to play—even if they are the focus of protest. Meaning, it is an important time to create functional and constructive spaces of dialogue and debate. That is what higher education can do well. This can encourage and channel the debates so that they don't become destructive and to ensure that all view points have a place to go.

Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I believe this has and can be done. It feels more vital today than ever before given the rather toxic climate students face when they leave.

Keller: It is a pleasure to temporarily close our discussion on a note of full agreement. I am in total accord with your observations--except that our definitions of the “toxic environment” that graduating students face may not be the same.