96° Good Evening
96° Good Evening
OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Free speech losing its 'safe space' on campus

Today, fewer than 5 percent of the rapes

Today, fewer than 5 percent of the rapes of college women are reported to law enforcement. And, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 16 percent of female student victims of rape and sexual assault received assistance from a victim services agency. Photo Credit: iStock

It seems that not a week goes by these days without another story of freedom of speech under siege, particularly in academia.

The latest, from Northwestern University in Chicago, is particularly rich in irony. In February, film professor Laura Kipnis wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education deploring an academic climate of "sexual paranoia" and hypersensitivity about offensive words and ideas. As a result, Kipnis herself ended up facing not only protests demanding university condemnation of her heresy, but -- as she revealed in another essay published last week -- a Title IX complaint from two students alleging "harassment."

Kipnis, who happens to be a left-wing feminist, was cleared of wrongdoing by the university. However, her ordeal, which she describes as an "inquisition," is still chilling -- and all too typical of the current campus climate of intolerance. That chilly climate is one of the subjects of a hard-hitting new book, "The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech," by journalist Kirsten Powers.

A Democrat who considers herself a "proud liberal" but is scathingly critical of what she calls "the illiberal left," Powers looks at many topics including media groupthink. But the attack on speech in the academy is particularly troubling because it often involves not simply ridicule or harsh disapproval of "politically incorrect" speech, but efforts to shut it down by administrative action or intimidation.

Powers chronicles disturbing examples, from what she calls "commencement shaming" -- denunciations of speakers whose views displease a vocal minority of students -- to a shocking 2014 incident at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where a gender studies professor and her students harassed a peaceful anti-abortion protest on campus. The professor, Mireille Miller-Young, defended her actions by claiming that the protest was "hate speech." More disturbingly, she was defended by many fellow faculty members.

Other bizarre tales in "The Silencing" include a furor at Smith College in response to an off-campus panel of alumnae and staff at which a speaker uttered a racial slur while making a point about provocative speech. The college newspaper called this "racial violence"; the Student Government Association charged that the event had made the campus "unsafe."

This word captures a peculiarly insidious feature of the anti-speech backlash on campus: its reliance on the language of trauma and therapy to demand censorship for the sake of "safe space."

Events too recent to be included in Powers' book bolster her concerns. This spring, Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who challenges claims of a campus "rape culture," spoke at Oberlin and Georgetown amid furious attempts to block her. The Georgetown student newspaper accused the group that sponsored her of promoting "harmful conversation."

One might argue that the problem is not one-sided: Leftist professors and students have encountered backlash for anti-Israel remarks perceived as bigoted, or comments on racial issues seen as anti-white (though these controversies usually focus on abusive or inflammatory tone, not ideas). But, given the heavy ideological imbalance at universities, the focus on the would-be censors of the left is justified.

Liberals may be waking up to the problem. In her commencement address at Oberlin last week, Michelle Obama reminded students, "There are plenty of people who think very differently than you do, and . . . you can't just shut them out." Progress cannot happen, the first lady said, unless progressives leave their "comfort zones" and talk to people with different views.

Who knows? At this rate, Michelle Obama could be the next target of "commencement shaming."

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.