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KC Johnson on Free Speech

Former Williams professor KC Johnson writes in Commentary:

In early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.

The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”

It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.

Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.

In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.

Indeed. The main thing we can do at EphBlog is to fight this tendency at Williams. Who will join us?

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#1 Comment By Sigh On July 12, 2017 @ 8:04 am

Ffs, that editorial was in response to finding nooses and bananas with over racist language tired to them the day after an African American was named president at American.

It wasn’t about Charles Murray. It’s irresponsible and pathetic to equate the two like that, especially when the Post has published many more defenses of Murray’s right to speak than of the protestors.

The main thing ephblog can do is be a blog about Williams in it’s entirety, not just a one note alt right rant about speech.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On July 12, 2017 @ 8:07 am


As always, we would love for you (and others!) to join EphBlog, as an anonymous author or under your own name. We need more (and your!) perspectives!

#3 Comment By JCD On July 12, 2017 @ 8:26 am

I think it is perfectly clear, among Republicans at least, that academic institutions are unfair to conservatives. Based on my personal experience, I would have thought Republicans might have figured this out a lot earlier. Nevertheless, they have finally caught on that academic institutions are downright hostile to their views and more than willing to silence them.

Here’s a great article from Bloomberg View which lays this trend out.

Conservatives Are Souring on Colleges. Blame Colleges.

Contrary to sigh’s pronouncement, I think it would be impossible to make sense of the mob madness which has descended onto the Williams College campus without making reference to these larger trends. Conservative students on campus need to know that they are right to see themselves in hostile territory, but also that they are not alone and that this is a national problem.

#4 Comment By anon-liberal On July 13, 2017 @ 9:43 am

Freedom of speech is boring. What about freedom of association?

From an article about Harvard

“This new report — which suggests the university follow in the steps of Williams College and Bowdoin College by attempting to do away with social clubs altogether — goes even further, asking that students be prohibited from joining any clubs that foster any measure of exclusivity, with a particular emphasis on completely “phas[ing] out” single gender social organizations by the year 2022.”