Universities Invent New Devices to Stifle Speech and Protect Snowflakes

Published April 11, 2017

Decades ago, the arrival of spring brought with it the return of silly season on university campuses, with such frolics as goldfish swallowing, telephone-booth stuffing, piano shattering, panty raids, and streaking.

In today’s much gloomier climate, silliness has yielded to the serious work of stifling speech and academic freedom in ever-more insidious ways.

March blew in with a dust-up at elite Wellesley College, where faculty members organized as the Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity offered their services as pre-event screeners of campus speakers, operating much like the censorship boards that once determined what movies people could or could not see.

The commission offered its surpassing wisdom after a student group had the temerity to extend a speaking invitation to Laura Kipnis, a feminist critic of the feds’ twisted Title IX interpretations and what she calls the “culture of sexual paranoia” on American campuses.

Filled with righteous anger, the commissioners charged that controversial speakers “impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley”—specifically by obliging students to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.”

Oh, the horror. Students challenged to weigh opposing perspectives and make a cogent argument? Isn’t that close to the heart of what we call “higher education,” or has that ethos disappeared along with the silly fads?

Concerned that future provocative speakers might enable “the bullying of disempowered groups,” the faculty commission is asking students and others to come in for heart-to-heart chats on who should or should not be able to speak at Wellesley.

Cluelessly, the commish launched this Orwellian foray during Censorship Awareness Week at Wellesley, thereby signaling that its answer to censorship is, well, more censorship.

The upshot of all this figures to be either speakers adhering to the dominant leftist orthodoxy or those with nothing to say.

In an e-mail to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Kipnis offered the acerbic but accurate observation that “protecting students from the ‘distress’ of someone’s ideas isn’t education, it’s a $67,000 babysitting bill.” (Tuition and fees at Hillary Clinton‘s alma mater approximates $67,000 per annum.)

Another way some university administrators try to stifle speech is by zoning it into tiny designated areas where students may have their say, often after having to fill out an application and wait their turn. Commonly, these so-called “free-speech zones” are not much larger than the telephone booths college students once packed during silly season.

At Pierce College, one of the institutions within Los Angeles’ Community-College District, the free-speech zone is approximately the size of three parking spaces. In a commuter college, that is precious little room to hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution, as student Kevin Shaw wished to do.

Therefore, with FIRE’s legal support, Shaw filed a federal court suit on March 28 contending the college and the district have violated his First Amendment rights.

Ah, but college officials are ever alert for new schemes to keep campus speech from offending fragile souls. Yes, Virginia, there are snowflakes in Canada.

Accordingly, Brayden Whitlock, an academic governor at the University of Alberta, asked in a Toronto Star column why it is—if higher education is supposed to encourage a free exchange and debate of ideas—that “at publicly funded universities across Canada, it’s become acceptable for university administrators to charge a security fee to student groups based on how controversial the speakers they invite to campus are?”

Good question.

Given that many student groups operate on a shoestring, such a sliding scale of security fees clearly operates to discourage student invitations to provocative speakers. It is, in effect, a punitive tax on free speech. Because administrators subjectively decide which prospective speakers are controversial, they become de facto censors when student groups are unable to ante up. Even worse, violent groups can suppress speech by ramping up the level of controversy over particular speakers.

At Western University, a student group called Young Canadians in Action forked over $1,200 in security fees because central-office bureaucrats deemed their invited speaker, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson, to be potentially controversial.

Peterson, by Canadian standards, is controversial; he dared to criticize political correctness and fretted about the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which could criminalize speech about issues of gender identity.

However, Peterson is so much more than a political provocateur. For example, he has written more than a hundred scientific papers that transform modern understanding of personality, and his presentations speak right to each individual’s quest of self-discovery. students have rated him one of three truly life-changing teachers.

The guy is brilliant. If you need persuading, go to his website or his YouTube channel and connect with his thought waves.

More than 700 students at Western turned out for Peterson’s address and wound up giving him a standing ovation. Young Canadians in Action should demand a refund of security fees.

The night before, raucous protesters at McMaster University shouted down Peterson’s talk after just a few minutes, which means students who wanted to listen, think, and engage with this amazing speaker lost out.

It is time for universities to stand not just for freedom of speech, but also for the right of their students to benefit from it.

[Originally Published at the Hill]