The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on free speech on campus last week. During the question and answer period Senator Diane Feinstein complained that public universities, like Berkeley, could not be expected to assure that unpopular speakers were heard on campus. They simply did not have the resources to protect them. One witness, Eugene Volokh, the UCLA law professor, pushed back, lucidly arguing that universities must protect unpopular speakers, because permitting agitators to prevent speech gives them a heckler’s veto.
Feinstein’s question points up one of the greatest problems of governance today. Our public institutions often do not deploy the resources to protect their core mission, because money is wasted instead on matters that are outside that mission and indeed undermine it. The University of California is a perfect example. As Heather Mac Donald has noted, the university keeps spending millions of dollars to hire bureaucrats devoted to various aspects of diversity. Yet these kind of bureaucrats frequently poison the atmosphere for free and open debate on campus. And dispensing with them would pay for more security that could protect Berkeley’s core mission of free inquiry.
Maintaining law and order is the government’s most essential function.
Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, devoted her commencement speech to free speech at Harvard and universities in general. First, she defended its centrality to a university’s mission of free inquiry; second, she asked why it had become such a contentious issue in recent years; and third, she made suggestions to strengthen it for the future. She deserves credit for the vigorous defense in the first part of her remarks at time when many university Presidents are missing in action. But the rest of her speech was shallow.
For instance, she suggested that it is the decline of religious, class and ethic homogeneity that has led to a renewed debate over the value of speech: “Once overwhelmingly white, male, Protestant, and upper class, Harvard College is now half female, majority minority, religiously pluralistic, with nearly 60 percent of students able to attend because of financial aid. Fifteen percent are the first in their families to go to college.”
Here she substantially exaggerates the homogeneity of the Harvard past, at least the past of four decades ago when I was a student.
Does this graduation season bring any good news from the American campus—any deviation from higher ed’s slide into politically correct incivility and closed-mindedness? A few cheering, or at least not thoroughly disheartening, signs are visible. The president of Bethune-Cookman University, joined by the school’s faculty, took a stand against protesters’ rudeness last week, when the U.S. Secretary of Education tried to address the Class of 2017 amid booing, back-turning, and catcalls at the Florida school. President Edison O. Jackson told the disruptors: “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go,” reports…
On National Review Online’s “Corner”, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed the nature and origins of recent campus disinvitations and disruptions, such as the Black Lives Matter intimidation of Heather Mac Donald at University of California Los Angeles. The essay has two parts. The first provides a narrative history of how American campuses embraced anti-free speech disruptions, and the second half offers policies to end them. Kurtz’s piece offered the now familiar complaint that tenured radicals are at the root of campus disruption, and Republican majorities in Congress should reform the Higher Education Act to force universities to protect speech and, if possible, rescind tenure. Professor Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor of Political Science at Berry College, critiqued Kurtz’s piece on two grounds. This first is that administrators are now in charge and have pushed faculty to the margins of decision-making. The second is that legislation is precisely the opposite of the proper solution, because federal regulation of various kinds has facilitated the erosion of the true diversity of American colleges.
My friend Heather Mac Donald is the latest speaker to be prevented from presenting on a college campus—this time at Claremont McKenna. Heather’s talk was to show how policing saves citizens’ lives, including those of African-Americans. Heather is the one of the most eloquent speakers I know. It is outrageous that some students prevented her from speaking. But perhaps not surprising: they fear that she may persuade their fellow students that it is some of their preferred policies, not the police, that are the greater danger to minority communities.
After the suppression of Heather’s talk a Vice-President at Claremont voiced bureaucratic regret in the manner that has become familiar after similar such incidents across the country. But it is generally a mistake to believe that university administrators at these universities or many others will do what it takes to defend free speech and thus free inquiry at their institutions of learning. The best evidence of the low priority they place is that students who prevent talks are almost never disciplined, let alone expelled or prosecuted for their interference. As Robert George reminds us every day, no has yet been held accountable for the assault on Charles Murray and his host that occurred at Middlebury. No one has yet been disciplined for the recent violence at Berkeley over a speaker either.
Three reasons combine to make actual protection of free speech a low priority on colleges campuses. The first is the tendency to treat students as simple consumers rather than as participants in the university community with duties that are no less important than professors.
Could a book entitled The War on Cops be more disturbingly prescient? Within just a few weeks of the release of Mac Donald’s work on June 21, the country reeled in horror at the cold-blooded murder of five police officers in Dallas on July 7, followed by the assassination of three more officers in Baton Rouge just ten days later. Americans might be forgiven for taking Mac Donald’s title literally.
The President of the United States is both head of government and head of state. As a result, he must not simply act as a party leader, but as the leader of the United States. He is both obligated to respect social traditions that contribute to national unity and behave personally in ways that promote the sound social norms that undergird civil society.
I have almost nothing good to say about President Obama’s policies as head of government. Probably the most important policy with which I wholeheartedly agree is his decision to move toward privatizing space exploration, a pretty insignificant matter. But I give him high marks as head of state. He has behaved decorously, has largely respected the social traditions of the office, and has refrained from personally denouncing his opponents.
Sadly, I have no such confidence in the performance of either of the candidates most likely to be elected President in 2016. It is almost superfluous to detail the reasons that Donald Trump is likely to fall short. He insults his opponents in the most personal terms and vulgarly discusses matters in public that should be private. My friend Heather Mac Donald rightfully argues that his presidency is likely to coarsen an already coarse social culture.
But Hillary Clinton is in my view no better.