In 1963, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill that prohibited known members of the Communist Party or those calling for the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution from speaking at the University of North Carolina.
Heroically, student leaders challenged this Speaker Ban, inviting two controversial figures to campus and overturning the law in court.
Oh, how the times have changed.
Recently, more than 150 people who identified themselves as Elon students signed a petition demanding that the school disinvite the woman tapped to deliver the Baird Pulitzer Lecture on Oct. 4. Her writing, they said, is informed by “prejudice and slander” and “is a consistent attack on all of the things Elon has been working toward – ending sexual assault, increasing diversity and creating a safe and encouraging environment for all students regardless of gender, race, ethnic background or sexual orientation.”
Who is this enemy of the state? Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post, whose syndicated column appears in newspapers around the country. Her crime: raising questions about modern feminism.
Thankfully, Elon’s leaders rejected this petition. But this incident illuminates a frightening trend that represents nothing less than an existential threat to American democracy – the rise of the authoritarian left.
The Elon petition is just one example of the highly visible anti-speech movement roiling many top schools, including Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and the University of Missouri. Although the First Amendment remains America’s bedrock right, there is a growing disenchantment with free speech among millennials. About 71 percent of college freshmen – the highest number in decades – believe “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus,” according to a survey published earlier this year by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. About 43 percent of freshmen agreed that “colleges have the right to ban an extreme speaker from campus.”
Conservatives have long complained about the climate on college campuses. This phenomenon is now so widespread that even some liberals are alarmed.
“Pressures on freedom of expression and all too often the actual suppression of free speech come not from outside the academy but from within it,” famed First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams observed in a speech at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. “And much of it seems to come from a minority of students, who strenuously – and, I think it fair to say, contemptuously – disapprove of the views of speakers whose view of the world is different than theirs and who seek to prevent those views from being heard.”
Nat Hentoff, a writer who has long championed free speech in books and columns, warns that “the suppression of speech in academia has begun to spiral out of control.”
Betraying our bedrock
Nadine Strossen, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, told a newspaper earlier this year, “Sadly, support for robust free speech is declining among liberals as it’s ascending among conservatives.”
There is, of course, nothing liberal about this intolerance. It is a betrayal of the bedrock ideas of tolerance, civility and the free exchange of ideas that informed classical liberalism and was captured in the quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This is a movement away from liberalism and toward illiberal progressivism.
“Liberals and progressives are not the same thing, they are polar opposites,” said Harvey Silverglate, a longtime member of the ACLU and a founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education who practices law in Cambridge, Mass. “Progressives are creatures of the left who do not believe at all in free speech. They see speech as a tool of power and believe that the speech they approve of should be ‘free’ and other kinds should be restricted.”
Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York Magazine, made a similar argument this summer in response to the violent anti-Trump protests: “Liberalism,” he wrote, “sees political rights as a positive good – rights for one are rights for all. ‘Democracy’ means political rights for every citizen. The far left defines democracy as the triumph of the subordinate class over the privileged class. Political rights only matter insofar as they are exercised by the oppressed. The oppressor has no rights.”
This is especially frightening because of another misleading claim – that leftist universities are indoctrinating tomorrow’s leaders with dangerous ideology. In fact, the UCLA survey also found that 33.5 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year institutions identified themselves as “liberal” or “far-left,” the highest proportion since 1973.
Now, more than ever, we need people of good will to display the courage that UNC students mustered a half century ago.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.