The Magazine

The Cost of Free Speech

From the October 3, 2005 issue: In the universities it's almost as high as the tuition.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus

by Donald Alexander Downs

Independent Institute/Cambridge, 295 pp., $28.99

SENSITIVITY HAS TAKEN OVER OUR society, and nowhere more securely than in our universities.

To see what has happened, consider this small fact. Half a century ago, a liberal Harvard psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, published a book, The Nature of Prejudice, that began the social science study of stereotypes. Though of course hostile to stereotypes, he allowed they might have a kernel of truth. For example, he said, fewer Jews are drunks than Irish.

A remark like that could not be made at a university today except in private to trusted friends. And if you made it, you would be testing your trust. Jews and Irish, to be sure, are not protected groups, but to speak so frankly even about them would betray a very troubling levity in your attitude toward groups that are protected.

Sensitivity is today's version of the soft despotism that Alexis de Tocqueville worried about in democracies, and it would not have surprised him that the worst of it would be found in the halls of the intellect. Only in American universities, some 300 of them, from 1987 to 1992, did the movement for sensitivity go so far as to enact semi-legal speech codes proscribing offensive speech. These codes provoked the ire of a few free speech heroes on the campuses and, more important, prompted them to mobilize opposition to the codes and to attempts by university administrators to enforce them.

One of these heroes, Donald Downs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has written an account of his own successful coup there, together with accounts of a comparable victory at Pennsylvania and failures at Berkeley and Columbia. He accompanies his narratives with reflections, which are those of an old-fashioned free speech liberal. At first a supporter of speech codes, Downs changed his mind when he saw them in operation. Readers get a chance to judge the virtues and defects of the free speech position in trying circumstances when many liberals abandoned it for sensitivity.

During most of the 20th century, Downs says, threats to free speech came from the right and from outside the universities. But in the late 1960s they began to come from the left, and from within. At that time, Herbert Marcuse set forth his notion of "repressive tolerance," an attack on the liberal free speech doctrine which claimed that, while pretending to tolerate free speech, liberals actually repressed it. This was because liberals frowned on radicals like Marcuse. Real dissent would have to challenge the whole of liberalism; in fact, the only true dissent is challenging liberalism. Conformist speech defending liberalism is worthless; in fact, so worthless that it can safely be repressed. No, safety demands that it be repressed, and in making a demand, safety is transformed into morality. Morality requires repressing liberalism. Downs calls this "progressive censorship," and says it is just as detrimental to free universities as traditional censorship from the right.

Thus, "repressive tolerance" has quite a punch in two words. By the late 1980s Marcuse's thinking had infused liberals and deflected many of them from liberalism into postmodernism, one feature of which is a soft therapeutic notion of sensitivity. Instead of repressing liberalism, let's make it sensitive. Between the late '60s and the late '80s feminism came on the scene and embraced sensitivity as the peaceable, womanly way to victory over liberalism.

Downs's first case is Columbia, which enacted a "sexual misconduct policy" in 2000 to assuage feminist protest there. Many more rape victims were being treated at Columbia's hospital than rapists convicted in the university judicial system. Columbia's solution was to make things easier for the accuser and harder for the accused. This policy related to conduct, and was not professedly a speech code.

At Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement of the late '60s, "progressive social censorship" was applied against opponents of affirmative action (outlawed in California in 1996 by Proposition 209). A series of incidents arising over cartoons in the student newspaper, law school admissions, and protests against visiting speakers created an atmosphere of intimidation, even though it was not formalized in a speech code.

At both universities, intimidation was directed at conservatives. As one Columbia student said, "You can't be conservative. If you are, you automatically get notoriety and infamy." Conservatives were not altogether silenced, but they were made to suffer when they spoke up.