ur position is absolute,” declare Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in the beginning of their new book, Free Speech on Campus. “Campuses never can censor or punish the expression of ideas, however offensive.” From two lions of the liberal academy, one the dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, the other the chancellor of UC Irvine, Free Speech on Campus opens like the book for which so many of us have long been waiting.
Yet the professors offer no paean to conservatism. They strive to satisfy the campus left as well, proposing mandatory diversity training and programs to “sensitize” the student body to microaggressions. In fact, taking pains to dissociate themselves from conservative critiques of “coddled” college students unable to handle opposing views, the professors prefer to explain how free speech is actually in the best interest of the campus left. The difference between these two types of condescension—one telling students to suck it up, the other purporting to know what’s best for them—is that Chemerinsky and Gillman’s version isn’t true, and the left knows it. The authors argue persuasively that free speech has always constrained the exercise of power. But they miss what is right before them: The left is the power on campus, and as they have long known but we must now discover, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
As much as Chemerinsky and Gillman recoil from calling students “snowflakes,” they really have no other account of why campuses turned against free speech: “For as long as [this generation of students] can remember, their schools have organized ‘tolerance weeks,’” the authors explain in their defense. We are supposed to see this as a good thing: “They are [now] deeply sensitized to the psychological harm associated with hateful or intolerant speech.” We are urged not to overlook the “sense of compassion” that leads a more diverse, naive campus left to suppress speech.
If over–compassionate students were the problem, then this book’s strategy would be sensible. Chemerinsky and Gillman err, however, in taking the campus left at its word. The activists claim to subscribe to a radicalized harm principle whereby conservatives such as Ben Shapiro must be stopped from giving an hour-long speech on campus because it would make students feel “unsafe.” Campus Republicans must be suppressed because writing “Build the wall” in chalk is “violence” that “dehumanizes.” Of course, anything could constitute harm, and which campus administrator wants to question the subjective experiences of minority students who claim to be mortally wounded?
Not Chemerinsky and Gillman. They acquiesce to the pseudoscience of implicit bias and microaggressions, unwittingly encouraging a sense of entitlement to a life free from slights, guaranteeing resentment when diversity training fails to deliver the goods. According to the Harvard Business Review, “the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.” These studies single out mandatory diversity training as substantially counterproductive. Recent polling from YouGov suggests that most statements listed as microaggressions were found inoffensive by 70–90 percent of racial minorities. No matter how well intentioned, these programs are ineffective and often hijacked by left-wing students and administrators hoping to push the vocabulary of grievance onto students who didn’t know they needed it.
In a recent article for RealClearPolitics, Peter Berkowitz correctly points to the “disproportion between the massive sums universities devote to sensitizing students to the harms of hate speech and the meager resources they allocate to teaching the principles and practice of free speech.” It’s time we tried a different approach and judged the campus left’s actions, not merely its words or ostensible goals. Consider the scene at UC Santa Cruz, where activists hounded the College Republicans club for hours, screaming that their mere “existence”—sitting in a room in the library, minding their own business—was a “disturbance to every marginalized person in this country.” Behold Reed College, where Hunter Dillman, a low-income student from rural Oregon, was harassed into dropping out after directing an innocent question to the organizer of an anti-Trump protest. Arch an eyebrow at Cornell, where an activist group began targeting black students who are the descendants of recent immigrants, not slaves, as being insufficiently diverse.
The real problem on campus is not safety or an excess of compassion but the balance of power. Enabled by sympathetic or risk-averse administrators, the campus left is dominant. With few serious opponents, it is relegated to destroying ever more implausible and unthreatening villains—pure demonstrations of its power with intent to intimidate. At Yale, 61 percent of freshmen feel comfortable giving their opinions on politics, race, religion, and gender. Unsurprisingly, that number declines after each year of attendance. Just 30 percent of seniors, the vast majority of whom are not conservative, feel similarly comfortable.
Chemerinsky and Gillman recognize that censorship has “been used throughout history to prevent challenges to people in power, to secure the place of dominant social groups against people considered less worthy of respect, and to prevent the circulation of new ideas that are the essential engine of social progress.” Yet they refuse to consider the possibility that the campus left could itself be such a power. Consequently, they cannot begin to account for the changes in the academy or face up to its new challenges.
The authors are on surer ground when they reject censorship in favor of civility. Free speech does not have to be associated with racism and childish insults—conservative groups should simply stop inviting racist provocateurs to speak. Conservatives can also borrow from the authors’ rhetoric: “Campuses cannot and should not accommodate the language of safe spaces when the focus is protecting members of the campus from the expression of ideas, rather than creating a safe environment for the expression of ideas.”
When the campus left was confronting power decades ago, free speech naturally seemed progressive. It protected dissenting voices: theirs. But now that progressive activists rule unchallenged, they see free speech as protecting only racism, sexism, and privilege. Consequently, the campus left does not need the virtues of free speech explained to them by Chemerinsky and Gillman. It already knows that free speech is the enemy of power; in fact, the left turned against free speech on campus for exactly this reason. You can tell when an ideology has become dominant by finding the point at which it starts viewing free speech as a hindrance to progress and as a vehicle for injustice.
Suffused with compassion, Chemerinsky and Gillman hardly even entertain the subject of punishment. Universities do not have that luxury. They should suspend students who deliberately disrupt speakers and suppress free speech. Repeat offenders should be expelled. If schools will not lead the way, then state legislators should pass legislation based loosely on the Goldwater Institute’s model, tying part of universities’ public funding to their protection of First Amendment rights.
After the mobs have been reproached, their power met and dwarfed by the power of the law, the campus left will once more call—no, protest—for free speech. They will have finally regained an interest in preserving it.