Ever since Brandeis University decided last week to revoke an honorary degree it was poised to grant to controversial women's rights activist and atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Internet has blown up with discussion, with some people condemning the decision, others defending it, and still others playing the culture war role of saying, "Double standard! I bet you wouldn't feel this way if Hirsi Ali was criticizing a religion other than Islam." So, in other words, it's a typical culture war fight on the Internet.
There are a few points, however, that I believe any serious and informed discussion of the Brandeis/Hirsi Ali honorary degree revocation need to address:
1. This incident is just one episode in what's becoming a "disinvitation season" trend on campuses. We at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) used to jokingly refer to commencement season as "disinvitation season" because it was the time of the year when students and faculty members became most active in trying to get colleges to revoke invitations to speakers with whom they disagree. But each year the joke seems less funny, as the push to disinvite campus speakers only gets more widespread and intense. As I emphasized last week, while most of the media focus is on commencement speakers, disinvitation season has become a year-round phenomenon. Those who opposed Hirsi Ali's disinvitation have chosen to focus narrowly on her and her controversial anti-Islamic points of view, but often ignore recent disinvitation campaigns against speakers including Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, Geraldo Rivera, Ben Stein, Meg Whitman, Robert Zoellick, and Ray Kelly (the last one, against Kelly, was a particularly ugly episode, because students not only objected prior to his campus appearance, but they eventually drowned out his speech with chants and heckling, allowing him to speak for only about 60 seconds before he could no longer make himself heard).
Focusing on just the Hirsi Ali revocation misses a much larger problem.
2. Brandeis University is named after one of the great heroes of freedom of speech in American jurisprudence, yet it has an abysmal track record when it comes to freedom of speech. Justice Louis Brandeis is one of my heroes; he was one of our nation's greatest champions of freedom of speech and is equaled in importance in First Amendment history only by his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Brandeis campus is festooned with glowing quotes about the importance of freedom of speech from its famous namesake.
That's what made it all the more outrageous that, in 2007, Brandeis found a professor guilty of racial harassment for uttering the racial epithet "wetbacks" while condemning the use of the term in his Latin American Politics class. Professor Hindley was explaining the origin of the epithet, which comes from stories of immigrants swimming across the Rio Grande. He was then somehow found guilty of racial harassment without so much as a hearing or a chance to defend himself against the accusation. Brandeis placed a monitor in his class and even threatened him with mandatory psychological counseling. It took the combined efforts of FIRE, the ACLU, and negative publicity in the media to get Brandeis to revoke the punishment.
And even then, Brandeis has never overturned its harassment finding against Hindley. FIRE and I did everything in our power to make sure that the university had every opportunity to overturn that shameful finding. FIRE sent letter after letter after letter to Brandeis, we took out a full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report to publicly shame the school, and we named Brandeis twice to our annual list of worst schools for freedom of speech. And when the president of Brandeis University, Jehuda Reinharz, retired several years ago to be replaced in 2011 by current president Fred Lawrence, a Brandeis student newspaper called for the university to finally overturn the harassment finding and apologize to Hindley. Lawrence ignored his own students and the finding against Hindley remains on the books to this day.
3. Students are watching this incident and further learning how to think like censors. In my book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, I talk about how the prevailing campus culture teaches students all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society, and ultimately teaches them to think, not like scholars, but like censors. Disinvitation season is only one result of this mentality, as is the ritual of student newspaper theft and destruction by other students, as well as truly absurd cases like the one described in this video in which a student actually ran over another student's anti-abortion protest with his car.
Further demonstrating this phenomenon was the nauseatingly short time it took for the main Harvard University student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, to come out in favor of the revocation of the degree to Ali. Even more shamefully, the Rutgers University student newspaper, the Daily Targum, used the revocation as an opportunity to make a renewed push to get Condoleezza Rice disinvited from speaking at their commencement.
The fact that Louis Brandeis' namesake college is being used by students at other campuses to rationalize the exclusion of speakers on the basis of their beliefs is dizzyingly ironic, and terribly sad.
My fear is that 30 years of campus speech codes and the cultivation of the sense among students that they have a "right not to be offended" have pushed students into an even more radical tendency: rather than being taught to beware groupthink and confirmation bias, students demand to be confirmed in their beliefs and not even have those speakers they sharply disagree with present on campus. This "expectation of confirmation" plays havoc with the very purpose of a university, and it's a formula for turning today's crop of our best and brightest into an echo-chamber generation.