In the last few years, political conservatives have self-righteously proclaimed themselves to be fervent champions of free speech on college and university campuses. In response to the regrettable efforts of some leftist students and community members to exclude, intimidate, and silence conservative speakers ranging from Milo Yiannopoulos to Richard Spencer to Ann Coulter to Charles Murray, conservative journalists, foundations, politicians, professors, and students have joyously wrapped themselves in the flag of academic freedom and fiercely condemned those students and community members who, they insist, are undermining our nation’s profound commitment to freedom of speech.
Let me be clear from the outset: I agree wholeheartedly that the students and community members who have embraced censorship, disruption and even violence in order to deny invited speakers whose views they oppose an opportunity to speak are deeply in the wrong. Such conduct is fundamentally incompatible with the core principles of our democracy and with the central precepts of academic freedom.
But I am a bit puzzled by contemporary conservatives who suddenly and quite vigorously defend the principle of free expression. I say “suddenly” because throughout American history it has been political conservatives who have consistently been the opponents of free speech and academic freedom. That they now energetically embrace what they have always rejected inevitably lends itself to more than a bit of skepticism.
From the very founding of our nation political and religious conservatives have sought to stifle freedom of thought and expression on college and university campuses. In the early years of the 19th century, for example, freedom of inquiry in American colleges was sharply constrained by the dictates of religious doctrine as post-Enlightenment Christians increasingly took control of academic life and determined what views could and could not be expressed on campus. In that era, for example, no views deemed blasphemous or heretical were welcome or permitted.
Then, as slavery emerged as an increasingly divisive moral and political issue, colleges and universities in the South closed their minds completely on the question. When it became known, for example, that a professor at the University of North Carolina was sympathetic to the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, the students burned him in effigy and he was discharged by the board of trustees.
Several decades later, as Darwin’s theory of evolution came to be accepted within the scientific community, religious leaders of academic institutions strived to exclude proponents of Darwinism from higher education.
Then, in the closing years of the 19th century, when businessmen who had accumulated vast industrial wealth began to support universities on an unprecedented scale, they insisted that the institutions dismiss progressive scholars who questioned the legitimacy of their businesses practices. A professor at Cornell was dismissed, for example, for a pro-labor speech that annoyed a powerful benefactor, and a prominent scholar at Stanford was fired for annoying conservative donors with his views on immigration.
Soon thereafter, during World War I, patriotic zealots persecuted those who dared question the legitimacy of the war or the draft. At the University of Nebraska, for example, three professors were discharged because they had encouraged “a spirit of indifference towards the war,” and at the University of Virginia, a professor was discharged because he had made a speech predicting that the war would not make the world safe for democracy.
Similar issues arose again, with a vengeance, during the age of McCarthy. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, universities across the nation excluded those even accused of Communist sympathies. The University of Washington, for example, fired three tenured professors, the University of California dismissed thirty-one professors who refused to sign an anti-Communist oath, and Yale president Charles Seymour boasted that “there will be no witch hunts at Yale, because there will be no witches. We will not hire Communists.”
Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, professors and students at Southern colleges and universities were often fired or expelled because they expressed support for racial equality. In 1956, for example, after an Episcopal minister who supported the NAACP was invited to speak at the University of Mississippi, the University withdrew the invitation after critics complained that inviting such a speaker was “too much like coddling a viper in your own bosom.” A year later, Allen University, a private all-black college in Columbia South Carolina, was compelled by the state’s governor to fire three distinguished professors, one black and two white, for their opposition to racial segregation.
And so it goes, into the 1960s and beyond, as conservative commentators, religious leaders, educators and politicians called for the punishment of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, of students demanding racial equality during the civil rights movement, of anti-Vietnam War activists at colleges and universities across the land, of students and faculty members who supported the gay rights movement, and on and on and on.
Put simply, throughout American history political and religious conservatives have followed a consistent pattern of attempting to silence free speech on campus when they objected to the ideas put forth. Now, though, they suddenly and un-self-consciously proclaim their unbounded commitment to the principle of freedom of speech ― when the speakers being silenced are Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer. How dare anyone, they now declare, silence free speech on college and university campuses? It is, they say, unthinkable!
I had a recent conversation with several very conservative advocates of free speech today in which I raised the question whether they were being perhaps a tad inconsistent. To make the point, I posed the following hypothetical:
Suppose the tables were turned, I asked. Suppose that instead of Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and Ann Coulter, the speakers who are being silenced today are individuals who come to campus to condemn Christian evangelicals for their “horrendous, corrupt, and deeply immoral views about the rights of women.” Suppose these speakers charged that Christian evangelicals, “spouting their ignorant and vile creed, should be condemned by all civilized persons as dangerously deranged.” And suppose then, I asked, that a group of conservative students and community members responded to such speakers by demanding that they not be invited to campus and attempting to prevent them from espousing such hateful and bigoted ideas.
Can you really tell me, I asked, that you would then be on the front-lines defending the free speech rights of such anti-Christian bigots? Would you, in that situation, be aggressively defending their freedom of speech? To their credit, they paused, and seemed to get the point.
To be a true believer in the principle of freedom of expression, one has to be just as willing to defend the right of individuals to express opinions one hates as opinions one loves. Political and religious conservatives have a long way to go before they can persuade me that their current infatuation with freedom of speech is the product of anything other than cynical political expediency and a profound lack of self-knowledge. I do welcome their support of free speech, but I hope they learn a lesson from this moment and continue to defend free speech even when their ox is being gored.