December 29, 2014

December 29, 2014 | Commentary on Education, Civil Society

Too many universities deal with unpopular speech by banning it

Omar Mahmood, a junior at the University of Michigan, writes for both the mainstream campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily, and university’s alternative conservative publication, the Michigan Review. At least he used to, until he became academia’s latest victim of political correctness.

Mr. Mahmood recently penned a brief satire of the “check your privilege” fad, claiming (tongue in cheek) that a system of right-handed privilege was oppressing left-handed people everywhere through daily right-handed “micro-aggressions” — a bit of jargon beloved by the progressive “social justice” crowd. The article was humorous, harmless and conservative.

In response, The Michigan Daily invoked a seldom-enforced technicality to kick Mr. Mahmood out of his writing gig, claiming a conflict of interest. Much worse, a group of students vandalized his room, pelted the door with eggs and hot dogs, attached hateful messages calling Mr. Mahmood “scum” and told him to “shut up” and leave the school.

The editor of the Michigan Review said, “These progressive students attacked Omar because they felt that he, as a Muslim, cannot also be a conservative.” One also wonders whether more media networks would be sounding the hate crime alarm over the attacks on Mr. Mahmood if it weren’t for his political views.

Incidents like this — in which someone says something unpopular then gets hounded out of business or bullied — can happen most anywhere in modern America. But they are most likely to happen in our colleges and universities, where honest inquiry and debate are fast becoming secondary to the “right” to not hear contrary opinions. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education just released a report determining that most U.S. colleges now violate free speech rights.

This applies both to students and those who are allowed to address them. A few months ago, Scripps College disinvited prominent political and cultural commentator George Will from giving a lecture as part of its Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program. Why? Mr. Will had written a column in which he disputed some claims about sexual assault on college campuses. He immediately became persona non grata.

At no point, of course, did Mr. Will ever make excuses for assault or praise violence. His “sin” was simply failure to toe a certain line regarding statistics and rhetoric. That made him too controversial to be heard on campus, much less engage in debate. The editorial page editor of The Washington Post — hardly a hotbed of conservatism — responded that Mr. Will’s article was “well within the bounds of legitimate debate.” That didn’t matter to Scripps.

A teaching assistant at Marquette University recently banned discussion of homosexual marriage in an ethics class — even though it would seem the perfect place for such a conversation — on the premise that mere discussion of such matters would be “homophobic.” When tenured Marquette professor John McAdams spoke out against this censorship on his blog, the university responded by suspending him from teaching and banning him from campus. Not only are students forbidden from talking about certain subjects, but a professor is now forbidden from complaining that the subjects are forbidden.

Close-mindedness isn’t just an American problem. Academia spans nations, as does its diseases. At one of the world’s most famous houses of learning, Oxford, a pro-abortion versus anti-abortion debate was canceled because, apparently, men aren’t allowed to have opinions on such things in an educational setting anymore.

For the record, even the pro-abortion debater thought this was ridiculous. He named this groupthink phenomenon the “Stepford Students.”

Of course, private colleges have a right to determine their speakers and publications. But any institution of higher learning worthy of the name should be open to the free exchange of ideas.

Censorship in academia is being excused using the same justifications for all censorship through history: People deemed lacking in virtue don’t deserve a platform to speak. Free speech applies only to people saying the right things.

It’s not really about protecting the common good; it’s about power. Control who gets to speak, and you control the debate. Control the debate, and you control how people think. Control how people think, and you control society.

After all, the easiest way to win an argument is to tape your opponent’s mouth shut. Too many educators today think this is a good idea.

 - Jim DeMint is president of the Heritage Foundation.

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Jim DeMint President
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Originally appeared in The Washington Times