Is Free Speech Passé?

Jay Hartman, Alicia Cooke

American universities ought to be some of the freest places in the world. Instead, aggressive political correctness reigns.

These days, academic free speech is passé. It’s far more hip to deny accomplished leaders the chance to address campus. This May, illiberal activists at Rutgers, Smith, Brandeis, and Haverford all managed to turn away their graduation speakers. American universities ought to be some of the freest places in the world. Instead, aggressive political correctness reigns.

Those of us who still defend the right to vigorously debate and freely associate are often derided as either hicks who took high school civics too seriously or elitists set on preserving our own power. As a student at Swarthmore College, I’ve been associated with both stereotypes.


“Justice,” Not Freedom

Four years ago, my friend Tyler Becker and I arrived at orientation and discovered that Swarthmore had no conservative or libertarian clubs. Undaunted, we decided to found our own, and I paid for a series of flyers to advertise our new classical liberal group. Within twenty-four hours, the hundred or so flyers I’d distributed were gone—and replaced with parodies mocking me as someone who wanted to deny others their “basic rights.” The irony, of course, is that I had just had my right to speech grossly violated.

The whole incident created a Facebook fracas, with upperclassmen publicly posting that I was just a misguided freshman who would transfer to a “midwestern Christian college” in no time. After a few weeks of dithering, the dean of students, Liz Braun, issued an email stating her “concern” that such censorship had taken place. But, in a popularly received editorial, two students shot back at the administration.

“Dean Braun’s email,” the students wrote in Swarthmore’s online paper, “represents the protection of extremism, the silencing of attempts to address such ignorance, and the astoundingly easy manner in which the administration has been maneuvered to speak in defense of this group.” As they saw it, “The issue here is how a student group representing extreme views can blitz the campus with its message, then run to the administration when the all-too-predictable backlash occurs—and then find shelter from the administration!” The pair dismissed tolerance for different points of view as “reactionary” and nothing more than “a shield to hide behind.”

In this conspiratorial retelling, my friend and I had anticipated that our flyers would be defaced, torn down, and parodied in a grand scheme to win the administration’s protection. Alas, if that was our plan, it didn’t turn out very well.

Last spring, members of our ISI-affiliated Conservative Society attended an open Board of Managers meeting to express our reservations about the student movement demanding that Swarthmore divest its $1.5 billion endowment of fossil-fuel companies. When the meeting was hijacked by student activists and the moderator made no effort to reassert order, I appealed to Swarthmore’s president, Rebecca Chopp, and Dean Braun, both seated in the front row. They said there was nothing they could do. So much for being shielded by the administration.

Having gotten word of polarizing protests like these, Robert George, a proud Swarthmore alum and well-known conservative professor at Princeton, reached out to our college’s President’s Office. George has experience teaching a popular Princeton seminar with friend and colleague Cornel West, a professor of African American Studies and the honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. George and West proposed to visit campus and share their insights from years of teaching together despite their profound ideological differences. Their discussion, titled “The Bond of Truth Seeking,” was designed to inspire students to work through disagreements while still engaging tough questions about the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, an event intended to build unity quickly bred its own controversies. Students and faculty fixated on George’s opposition to gay marriage as an example of “hate speech” and accused West of being “deeply selfish” for providing George a platform. Protestors distributed leaflets that read, “Building community requires eradicating” views like George’s. “We don’t want mere tolerance; we want to fight oppression.” According to these activists, tolerance for George (and West) “actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination.” In this view, free speech is a zero-sum game. If conservatives are allowed to express themselves, someone else is being discriminated against; therefore, the only justifiable response is silencing disfavored speech.

This is the same warped thinking that motivated Harvard student Sandra Y. L. Korn’s editorial in the Crimson calling on colleges to abandon academic freedom in favor of “academic justice.” And it’s the same mind-set that was on display at Brown when student demonstrators shouted down former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly. Both the Kelly controversy and Korn’s editorial were widely derided in both the mainstream and conservative press, but I’m sad to report that they reflect a commonplace attitude at America’s most prestigious colleges. According to many of my peers—and professors—the notion that academia is the “marketplace of ideas” is just a bunch of capitalist claptrap. Instead, students are taught that college is four years of preparation in social justice; meaningful debate on issues like gay marriage, climate change, and Title IX law only hinder the coming revolution.

After the George-West forum, three Swarthmore professors took to the college weekly, The Phoenix, to denounce George’s appearance on campus. No faculty defended the event.


What Is to Be Done?

So, as Lenin might put it, What is to be done?

My advice is that students heterodox enough to still believe in free debate take a page out of Tom Paine’s playbook. That is, start meeting, and start writing. In addition to the Conservative Society, my peers and I founded the Swarthmore Independent,an online publication supported by ISI’s student journalism program, the Collegiate Network. The Independent frequently pressures the Swarthmore administration to uphold all students’ free speech and due process rights. Rather cheekily, we refer to ourselves as the “true campus counterculture.” At a school somewhat notorious for its hippies and hipsters, we’re crazy enough to stand by James Madison’s constitutional principles. We’re known for actually reading the student handbook and embarrassing administrators when they break their own stated policies.

Although it can be nearly impossible to redirect campus discourse as an individual, it is invigorating to do so as a group. In one upsetting episode, a friend of mine wrote an article explaining why he didn’t think it was a contradiction that he identified as both gay and conservative. Sadly, the campus’s most prominent queer leaders took to social media to smear my friend as “an admissions mistake.” I’m proud that our Conservative Society rallied behind my friend and urged him to ignore Swarthmore’s set of cyberbullies.

The final saving grace is humor. Sanctimonious campus censors aren’t very fond of it, but for the rest of us, a good laugh is quite liberating.

One of the Independent’s reporters, Paige Willey, sparked predictable outrage when she attended a campus workshop on “Fat Justice” and expressed her opinion that the feminist speakers—who complained about the “ongoing exploitation and oppression of fat people” at the hands of “the patriarchy”—were sorely misguided. One of the organizers lambasted Paige for violating basic journalism ethics. Paige’s offense? She didn’t ask permission to write about their public event. We joked that Woodward and Bernstein didn’t ask Nixon’s permission to report on Watergate.

Fortunately, we had both humor and the First Amendment on our side. And so do you.


Danielle Charette, a Connecticut native and 2011-2012 ISI Honors Fellow, is a 2014 graduate of Swarthmore College. She is the co-founder of the Swarthmore Conservatives Society and its publication, the Swarthmore Independent, serves on the editorial board of the oldest campus literary magazine, and contributes to Swarthmore’s campus newspapers, the Phoenix and the Daily Gazette. Danielle was a Robert F. Bartley fellow with the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board in the summer of 2012. 

  • Sean Michael Reeves

    There is a very nihilistic mentality regarding “Justice” that has, for a long time, been a pervasive trait in the cult of Progressive activists. This tragic (and many times aggravating) observation has been documented for decades, particularly on college campuses and academic institutions. Despite always being touted by those on the left, the concepts of “tolerance”, “being open-minded” and “diversity”, are in actuality scoffed at and highly discouraged, as this article and many others point out. And all the while, the left deceptively attributes these transgressive attitudes as trademarks of “right wingers”. Buckley put it best: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to find that there are other views.” Why is this? Because only they are the ones who are right, and just, and caring. Therefore, they are able to justify doing whatever they can to literally quelch the opposition and all other influences. This is the nihilism they employ, spurred by Alinsky and others. What does it matter that they practice the opposite of what they preach and lower themselves to primitive tactics? In their minds they are suppressing speech for a good cause, so the ends justify the means.

  • Longdrycreek- Texas Panhandle

    The slog through an institution in the hands of barbarians is a challenge. But as the writer notes, it can be fun and empowering.
    The Marxists who want to seek what they call “justice” fail define what justice is, historically or its sources.
    Ignorance is the Left’s and Marxist’s long suit. Humor drives them to
    distraction, too.
    For professors who want academic freedom for their privileged views, as if those views are the only acceptable one, students should avoid
    their classes and courses. The reason to avoid these dry wells in
    the academic wilderness is these professors will not satisfy to truth or integrity.

    • Ken Roth

      hmmm, longdrycreek, I wonder where you went to school because your attack on education seems anti-democratic to me. further, you give no indication whatever that you have any understanding of Marx and academic freedom, or the reasons that the critique of capitalism by Marx, and the ability of the academy to share that information by and through academic freedom is vital to any kind of democratic project, or any other social interaction where justice, equality and equity are prized. I think we all find our world rife with these types of empty, ungrounded criticisms today, so I would encourage you if you want people to listen to your opinions to at least thinly veil them in fact and theory rather than just hot-blooded, unknowing rhetoric of the ideologic kind.

      • Longdrycreek- Texas Panhandle

        With 4 earned degrees and a diploma in jurisprudence and human right from Strasbourg and a life long reader, I believe I have earned the right to be heard.
        I am not sure why you dragged either capitalism or Marxism into the conversation, though the cultural Marxists [strong in the U.K.] have moved west and have taken over
        our universities.
        I assume you approve denying speakers at a commencement in universities because of past associations.
        As for modern education, I think Allan Bloom’s book of a generation ago anticipated the intellectual vacuity that not is bursting into full bloom. Students know less than they did during my father’s time, who education was limited to high school in the 1920’s.
        Do you know Latin? 4 years in high school in my father’s day. Rare indeed is the school in 2014 that teaches 4 years of Latin and the older curriculum, the core of the Western canon.
        In place of the Western canon, the substitutes of choice today are inferior writers whose work will not stand the test of time.
        Or perhaps you have read Alister McIntyre’s “After Virtue,” when he closes with the observation that we are entering a new Dark Ages? And our hope, he writes, is for some future Benedict of Nursia and founder of the Benedictine Order to come to lead in preserving the Greco and Roman tradition of letters and the communities that sustain us during the coming Dark Age.
        Or perhaps you are intimately familiar with
        the late Richard Weaver’s “Ideas of Consequences.” It is worth your time to invest in reading this work. It was written in 1953, so what I describe is not suddenly new or, as you write, “undemocratic” or even unwilling to be thrilled by this new Dark Age, but to lament the passing of a great university tradition. Finally, I assume you have read
        John Henry Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University” [1845]. Worth a good read.
        You may accuse me of being out of touch and not modern or not an avowed Marxists or whatever you like. Fine.
        Having read the past and observed the present, I find that if professors and their limited knowledge students protest at commencement speaker because of their past governmental association or for other cause, they, both professors and their ill-educated students, are denying academic freedom. The professors will claim academic freedom but all freedoms must be equally balanced by academic responsibility.
        When I taught in college or a small university, I made an effort to present all the possible responses to a question.
        That is academic responsibility and an exercise in academic freedom. Note the reversal.
        Best wishes as you cope to the Dark Age and, by all means, avoid the barbarians and make a concerted effort not to join the merry band of barbarians on your way.

  • Ken Roth

    pornography is not protected speech and neither should be pornographically ideologic speech. Speech that harms others or scaffolds ideology that harms others should not be tolerated. But this author does a great job at obfuscating their political bent by discussing the absence of conservative or libertarian clubs at Swarthmore and then saying that he and others undauntedly organized a classic liberal club. by classic liberal club I’m assuming he means the world according to adam smith, and that’s all well and good. but adam smith had no tolerance for the type of conservative and libertarian ideologies that exclude, deny, racialize, and tear at the social fabric that are common among such self-described groups today. so, I’m not sure to question the author’s integrity for attempting to equate classic liberality with conservative/libertarian ideology, or to question his education, which by his representations here appears to be conclusion specific, lacking rigor, and wrong-headed.

  • Ken Roth

    wow, interesting to find out that this web site doesn’t support freedom of speech as it again defies the sharing of ideas only to disseminate its own fractured ideology.

  • Kennon Gilson

    Thanks for the article. As Libertarians are the world’s largest Rights movement, this is certainly disturbing.
    For info on actual people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @

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