The Battle for Free Speech on Campus is Far from Over

The Battle for Free Speech on Campus is Far from Over
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

Some would have you believe there is no free speech crisis on college campuses. Forget the multiple campus free speech bills trending in state legislatures, and the long line of legal battles fought and won in defense of students’ constitutional rights. According to Salon.com, all of those efforts to preserve our free speech freedoms are in response to a “largely imaginary” problem.

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GQ has similarly called those concerned with the growing culture of censorship in America “Free Speech Grifters” who, according to stand-up comedian Bill Burr, are “acting like the sky is falling.” GQ columnist Mari Uyehara poses the question, “Why are some of the biggest public intellectuals so fixated with a small minority of liberal college students?”

Either these media types are grossly out of touch with the values and concerns of Generation Z, or they don’t understand the importance of the First Amendment and the history of free speech on this country. And yet, some academics continue to argue that the free speech crisis never existed in the first place, or that the problem has already come and gone like a trending hashtag on Twitter. Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Acadia University argues that “The ‘Campus Free Speech Crisis’ Ended Last Year.” If only that were true!

Speech First filed three major lawsuits against colleges and universities within the last year to force them to comply with the First Amendment. A case against the University of Michigan challenging unconstitutional speech codes was overturned by a federal appeals court in August, and then followed by a subsequent settlement agreement where they agreed to eliminate their overly broad definitions of “bullying” and “harassment.”

Professor Sachs compares a series of data points for the year 2018 to similar data from 2016 and 2017 and concludes that, because the 2018 numbers were slightly better than the two previous years, the crisis must have ended in 2017. This methodology is inherently flawed — it ignores a host of confounding variables while simultaneously overemphasizing a single year of data in measuring a decades-long trend.

The political climate in 2018, and by extension the political firestorm on college campuses, was never going to live up to one of the most contentious presidential elections in our nation’s history and the resulting protests after the close election results that occurred during 2016 and 2017. A political “hangover” on campus in 2018 was a predictable result after the campaign binging that occurred the prior two years.

One campus speech metric that Sachs focuses on is the number of speaker disinvitation attempts tallied by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) in their “Disinvitation Database.” This resource tracks reported incidents in which a speaker is invited by a college or student group to come give a speech or lecture on campus, only for other students or faculty to demand that the speaker be “disinvited” or otherwise prohibited from speaking on campus. The database records the success or failure of these attempts, as well as the political leanings of the people or groups trying to do the silencing.

The data has substantial limitations — particularly the inability to account for student groups that would like to invite speakers, but decide not to do so because they know they would face backlash from the community — but it can be used as a loose proxy for the overall environment for campus speech. For most of the 2010s, the annual number of attempted disinvitations ranged from 20 to 30 but spiked to a record 43 in 2016 and 36 in 2017. Sachs cited the decrease to 19 in 2018 as evidence that the war was over. But as any student on campus could have predicted, he claimed victory too soon. 2019 is already back up to 36 attempts at the time of this writing (tied with 2017), and the year is not even over yet.

As the election cycle for the 2020 presidential race heats up, the number of disinvitations and other forms of censorship on campus will likely continue to climb. The attempt by Sachs and other critics to claim an early victory over censorship is a disservice to students of all political stripes who still fear real repercussions from professors, campus administrators, or other students.

We must continue to report and fight against the unconstitutional speech restrictions still flourishing in higher education, despite best efforts by some to convince us the problem is behind us.

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