In March, I reported optimistically about the state of free speech at our colleges and universities. At that time, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which tracks attempts to disinvite or shut down campus speakers, recorded just nine “disinvitation” events in 2018. That was down from 43 in 2016, a record year, and 36 in 2017.
By 2018, 56 universities, 20 in that year alone, had adopted or endorsed versions of the University of Chicago’s impressive statement on free expression, according to which “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.” Perhaps, I thought, the fever had broken.
But at the end of 2019, there are reasons to worry that the turn toward intellectual liberty on American campuses was a mirage. Having received additional reports, FIRE now records 18 disinvitation attempts for that year.
Still, that’s nothing compared to this year, with 37 recorded disinvitation episodes. Since reports will continue to trickle in after the year closes, the chances are that 2019 will set a new disinvitation attempt record, at least for the two decades or so in FIRE’s database.
But even if 2019 ends up beating 2016’s record, it will not be precisely a return to form.
As the political scientist Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out, disinvitation attempts that FIRE classifies as coming, ideologically speaking, from the left of a speaker remain down. In 2016, there were 35, making up 81 percent of the total. In 2019, there have been 19, just 51 percent of the total.
In contrast, attempts that come from the right of a speaker are up—FIRE has already recorded 11 in 2019, more than double 2016’s five. One of the most troubling cases of 2019 occurred at Georgia Southern University, where students burned copies of Make Your Home Among Strangers, a novel by Jennine Capó Crucet. Her critics objected to what they considered her racism against whites.
But although one wishes conservatives would eschew illiberal tactics, left-leaning schools typically hold the line against them. Apart from the incident at Georgia Southern, which FIRE misclassifies as emanating from the left, the database includes only two successful disinvitation attempts in 2019 in which the objection came from the speaker’s right. Both incidents involved Catholic institutions and concerned abortion rights.
In part, for this reason, attempts to disinvite or shut down speakers were less successful in 2019. In 2016, they had a success rate of about 56 percent. By 2019, that rate was down to approximately 46 percent. Though 2019 is likely to match 2016 in attempted disinvitations, it is unlikely to match it in successes.
Disinvitation attempts are only one way of looking at free speech on campus. Although they are rare, even in a record year, we can expect successful efforts to influence the calculations of almost any professor or administrator when deciding whom to bring in for a lecture, training, or commencement address.
2018 was, indeed, a blip. But 2019 doesn’t put us back at square one in the struggle to preserve free speech on campus. Meanwhile, as of November, 14 more institutions, including three state systems, have adopted or endorsed a version of the Chicago statement. At the close of 2019, there are grounds for cautious optimism.