This morning, New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait tried to address the question of political norms on the left in response to several academics and a few journalists who have pushed back against the idea that there is a free speech crisis on college campuses. The headlines of some of the pieces Chait is reponding to:
- People always think students are hostile to speech. They never really are, by historian Andrew Hartman
- The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth. Here are the facts, by political scientist Jeffrey Adam Sachs
- Everything we think about the political correctness debate is wrong, by journalist Matthew Yglesias
The common theme of these and other recent articles is that whatever one thinks of individual examples of efforts to deny platforms to external speakers on a campus or harass faculty and students for their views, those individual incidents are swamped by broader trends in favor of free speech, and moreover, that young adults are more tolerant about free speech than older adults.
Chait’s response, in a nutshell:
I think defining the question as “free speech on campus” largely misses the point. It is not, for the most part, a question of “free speech” in the legal sense. It is about the spread on the left of norms and protocols of political discussion that make reasoned disagreement difficult or impossible. In its most extreme form this can lead to overt censorship, and such acts mostly occur on elite campuses, which have the highest concentration of committed radicals. But campuses are not the only places where this political style has been on display. There is only so much formal censorship that can go on in a country with robust First Amendment protections. The question is what progressives are doing to our own minds.
On the one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to wonder about evanescent phenomena you see around you and wonder if this is the start of a more worrying concern. On the other hand, Chait has repeatedly and explicitly focused on campus incidents here, here, and here. I suspect his next column on the topic will mention campus incidents again, and the one after that. Face it, Mr. Chait: you probably can’t quit writing about campus speech incidents. Which means that, despite your protestations, your columns on the topic are intimately tied to campus speech incidents, when the data shows opinions of young adults and college students are not as horrible as some claim.
Yes, we should worry about suppression of speech at colleges and universities. Writing as someone who has defended unpopular speech on campuses repeatedly over my career, I worry about that a great deal because I think specialized institutions like colleges and universities matter. But it’s not the Milos or Murrays who are the main targets of suppression attempts on campuses. Instead, it’s students and faculty of color, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has pointed out. For an example, see Joshua Cuevas’s account in the most recent issue of Academe.
Here’s the problem: all the media attention on things like the interruption of a Christina Sommers speech at Lewis and Clark obscures the attacks on faculty such as Cuevas. If you care about free speech on campus, you can’t be up-in-arms about single-day incidents and ignore the cyberharassment waves that some faculty experience. As an administrator, I’ve developed plans to respond if any of the colleagues in my academic unit experience cyberharassment, and I’ve run those plans by a colleague who has experienced cyberharassment.
That doesn’t mean I will persuade students or colleagues on campus who want to deplatform a speaker. But there’s something called credibility built on behavior, and if I want to suggest to activist students some alternatives to shouting down speakers or worse, I’ve done more than gripe about a putative rise in PC culture in New York Magazine.