At a Manhattan gala last week celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, one of the group's founders, Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate, declared only semi-facetiously, "This is a very sad night. I thought the organization would have to disband in five years." Unfortunately, the foundation, which defends freedom of expression and association as well as due process at academic institutions, still has its work cut out for it amid a rising tide of hypersensitivity.
One admirable thing about the foundation, which has supporters across the political spectrum, is that its claim to be nonpartisan is not just a buzzword: It has championed the free speech rights of everyone from left-wing anti-war protesters and pro-Palestinian activists to conservative opponents of abortion or affirmative action. Nor does it limit its work to political and social issues, coming to the defense of students and professors penalized for criticizing college administrators over something as innocuous as the construction of a parking deck.
Sometimes, speech-muzzling is motivated by what Silverglate called "bureaucratic stupidity." Recently, a professor at Bergen Community College in New Jersey was suspended for sharing online a supposedly threatening photo of his young daughter wearing a T-shirt with a quote from a character on the TV series "Game of Thrones": "I will take what is mine in fire and blood." Sometimes, it's based on skittishness about controversial topics such as marijuana legalization. But the push to censor expression labeled as offensive on the grounds of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion is insidious because of its supposedly noble goal: to provide a "safe space" for students who have experienced violence or oppression.
Just last week, hundreds of students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, demanded the cancellation of a speech by syndicated columnist George Will because he had criticized what he considers an overbroad campaign against campus sexual assault. Having Will speak, activists asserted, could "re-victimize and re-traumatize some of our students." Fortunately, the university refused to cave -- unlike California's Scripps College, which canceled an appearance by Will earlier this month.
At the University of California at Santa Barbara in the spring, a feminist professor aided by students vandalized an anti-abortion exhibit and physically assaulted a teenage female activist -- and later defended her actions saying the exhibit was a psychological attack on women. Around the same time, a symposium on traditional marriage at Stanford University was denied college funding because it would make gay and lesbian students feel unsafe.
The newest trend is for colleges to require professors to issue "trigger warnings" for material in the syllabus that deals with sensitive topics such as racism, homophobia or sexual violence. In effect, this leads to pressure on professors not to use such material at all.
At the anniversary gala, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams warned that "this is an extraordinarily perilous moment with respect to free speech on campuses." Too many students, he said, "seem to want to see and hear only views they already hold," and too many schools "seem willing to pander to that desire."
Silverglate concluded his remarks by urging the foundation to focus on changing campus culture so that assaults on speech do not happen -- and quipped that one of its goals was "to avoid having a 25th anniversary." It's doubtful that attempts to censor unpopular speech will ever go away. But we should certainly strive for a more open, less hypersensitive academic climate than we have today. One can only hope it will take less than 25 years.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.