Free Speech and Academic Freedom under Attack in Colleges & Universities

Having spent thirteen years as an administrator (department head & dean) at the University of Illinois, I learned early on how heavy-handed academia can be when it comes to practicing political correctness on campus.

The First Amendment right of free speech is too often denied to students and faculty who don’t support or adhere to established liberal orthodoxy, which is the reigning type of groupthink on college campuses today.

I also learned that the presumption of innocence, the legal principle that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty, often is not adhered to in academia as it is in the rest of society.

Instead, when a faculty member at a university is accused of some violation or breach by a student or fellow faculty member, he or she is generally assumed to be guilty until proven innocent—a process that can take a year or longer, hold up a faculty member’s tenure vote, or obstruct a student’s graduation as a campus committee investigates the charges.

Is it possible that this obstreperous and fractious climate could get any worse on college campuses?

You bet. And it already has.

Take this edict just handed down at the University of Southern Maine.

That University requires all members of the community to sign a “Black Lives Matter Statement and Antiracism Pledge.” The pledge mentions Ibram Kendi, a historian and author who popularized the concept of “antiracism.”

“We stand in solidarity with those who are working for justice and change. And we invite you to join us in pledging to be a practicing antiracist at the University of Southern Maine and in all aspects of your life. We believe, as Ibram Kendi writes, that ‘the only way to undo racism is to constantly identify it and describe it — and then dismantle it.’ The University will publish the list of antiracists. There very well may be retaliation against those who do not sign the pledge.

Let that last sentence sink in. There very well may be retaliation against those who do not sign the pledge.

Retaliation. Reprisal. Retribution. Vengeance.

That’s what will happen to you if you refuse to abandon your right to free speech, free thought, and freedom to oppose a mandated pledge. Not everybody agrees with the Marxist ideals of Black Lives Matter, so why should they be forced to pledge allegiance to it?

The pledge is not only unconstitutional; it is a violation of the sacrosanct principle of academic freedom. Universities cannot nor should not prescribe how students and faculty think or follow a prescribed orthodoxy.

Well, guess what? More and more universities and colleges are doing just that.

Recently, a political science professor at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, told Inside Higher Ed News that he is facing “possible termination” for refusing to view “diversity” videos that the administration is mandating.

“My quarrel is not so much with the content of the materials the administration would impose upon us but rather the coercive imposition itself,” Jeffrey Poelvoorde wrote in an open letter to Converse.

Catholic scholars issued a letter of disapproval after Loyola University Maryland, a Jesuit-run college in Baltimore, announced last month that it would remove the name of the Southern short story writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor from a dormitory after the school’s president said “racist leanings” emerged in the writer’s correspondence.

In Louisiana, Nicholls State University President Jay Clune asserted in a campus-wide email in June that “free speech does not protect hate speech,” worrying advocates of free speech on campuses.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union says there is no such thing as hate speech. There is only free speech.

“With faculty, we see an uptick in universities requiring mandatory diversity training and sensitivity training,” Zach Greenberg, a program officer with campus free speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Washington Times.

Greenberg noted that universities have their free speech rights as organizations but added, “Generally, they can’t force faculty to conform to any political orthodoxy.”

Do you want to bet?

When Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson blogged disparagingly about the Black Lives Matter movement, saying its “Hands up, don’t shoot” mantra was a “fabricated narrative,” he was reprimanded in a statement by his dean, who called his analysis “offensive and poorly reasoned.”

At several schools, including Missouri State University and the University of South Carolina, students who have yet to arrive on campus are being told to stay home for writing social media posts that are viewed as racist.

Marquette University in Milwaukee revoked admission of an incoming lacrosse player after learning that she had posted to Twitter, “some ppl think it’s okay to [expletive] kneel during the national anthem, so it’s okay to kneel on someone’s head.”

Was the student’s tweet tactless and juvenile? No doubt. Nevertheless, the First Amendment protects her right to say it.

“We’re seeing a lot of universities investigate and punish students for allegedly hateful speech that they say online,” said Mr. Greenberg of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “And the vast majority of this expression is protected under the First Amendment.”

The crackdown on speech, for some, represents a disingenuous attempt to stifle dissent, not uproot racism. Some of the academic clashes have already landed in court.

Ilana Redstone, who is affiliated with the Heterodox Academy, a group of professors dedicated to “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement,” said viewpoint diversity needs to remain critical for colleges, even in turbulent times.

“Engaging with a diversity of viewpoints should be a priority within higher education,” Ms. Redstone, associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an email. “We can and should encourage intellectual humility and a curiosity about the ways different people understand the world.”

I couldn’t agree more.

(Ronald E. Yates is a U.S. Army veteran, an author, a former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, and Profess or & Dean Emeritus of Journalism at the University of Illinois.)

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