Universities Fuel Growing Clash Between Fascism and Free Speech

An unlikely player is eroding one of America’s crowning contributions to human freedom. In a perverse role reversal, American universities are laying the ground work to alter the meaning of the First Amendment and the protections it has afforded free speech and inquiry for generations. The irony that the institutions thought to symbolize human learning and exploration should be leading the movement to control and restrict those pursuits seems lost on the activists and academics pushing that direction.

Recent violent and threatening incidents that prevented conservative or anti-leftist or simply provocatively intellectual figures from speaking at Middlebury University, Berkeley, UCLA and elsewhere have highlighted growing opposition to speech Leftist don’t want to hear. It’s not a new phenomenon. Researcher Stanley Kurtz reminds that protests to silence conservative speakers reach back to disrupting figures from the Reagan administration in the 80s, and have continued intermittently for speakers identified with Israel or the second Bush administration.


What’s changed is that the frequency and variety of incidents of mob censorship seem to be accelerating, students and activists are becoming more brazen and unyielding in their demands, they are taking their mission from the campus out to the streets, and university faculties and administrators are increasingly siding with the students and providing intellectual cover for the suppression of unwelcome ideas.
Now, we have unruly mobs not only blocking events on campus, but violently disrupting rallies supporting Trump on public streets. Berkeley’s paper, the Daily Californian publishes an essay by unidentified members of antifa–anti-fascist as they style themselves–asserting that to protect free speech and community safety, they will don masks and “militantly” disrupt speech they oppose.
We have the student government of Middlebury College–where hooligans recently chased off campus the eminent sociologist and author Charles Murray and injured the neck of the liberal professor who dared to accompany him—adopt an extraordinary resolution rejecting punishment for the disruptors. The audacious document declares that protest is a legitimate avenue not only to be heard, but to “compel decisive actions” by institutions. (Nice of them to let us know who is in charge). It also rejects resort to law enforcement because “arrest and criminal charges are associated with police violence and the carceral [sic] state,” smack of “the new Jim Crow,” stigmatize the protesters, and chill their future opportunities.
If this strikes you as lunacy, don’t look for backup from the “adults” running the university. Ulrich Baer, a professor and dean at New York University recently penned an essay in the New York Times “What the Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech” siding with the students: True “free speech” should be understood to protect marginalized and victimized segments of society from dehumanizing and oppressive ideas of more powerful segments.
This creeping unofficial amending of the First Amendment is not going unchallenged. Legal Rights organizations like the Foundation For Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have represented students and won many important cases against abusive campus actions. But, the victories can be Pyrrhic as universities are some of the wealthiest institutions in society. Litigation can drag on for years, recoveries are usually modest in amount, and school coffers barely feel a sting. Universities are either more fearful of, or likely more ideologically aligned with the leftist militants on campus than they are about an occasional legal setback.
Recognizing this dynamic, some commentators propose congressional action to reclaim liberty on campus. Legislation could change universities’ cost benefit analysis either by withholding federal funds from institutions that fail to protect free speech on campus, and allow mob veto to disrupt the rights of others, or awarding much higher levels of damages to students and faculty whose rights are trampled.
The debate is heating up. It’s not as if Congress has proposed a Constitutional Convention or study committee to reconsider the meaning of the First Amendment. But, leading harbingers of culture and education certainly have. The Convention is underway and the future of freedom is at stake.

Trump/DeVos Looking to Pull the Federal Boot Off Education’s Back.

Keeping a campaign promise, President Trump signed an executive order yesterday directing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to review federal overreach into state and local management of K-12 education. On the campaign trail, Trump had promised to try to pull Washington back and restore authority to states and communities.

This is good news for education for several reasons. Washington’s involvement in education creates a redundant layer of control and expense without adding value to teaching or learning in the classroom. Congress isn’t and shouldn’t be a 535 member national school board governing from the East Coast. An institution laboring under the dysfunctional leadership of partisans like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, should stick to trying to clean up the federal government’s act, not sticking their noses into local classrooms.
Similarly, the United States Department of Education isn’t and shouldn’t be a super national District Administration pulling strings across the country. But that’s close to the reality of the the federal impact. Compliance with rules, regulations, red tape, and passing whims of national figures (Michelle Obama’s misguided lunch crusade comes to mind) creates huge administrative burden and expense for school districts. A lot of district professional and legal staff is driven by the need to track, understand, and comply with federal statutes, regulations, and “guidance letters.”
It would be one thing if the national burden improved classroom results. But, there’s no evidence this is the case. The Department did not even exist until October of 1979, and was birthed by Jimmy Carter as a reward to the national teachers union for endorsing his run for president. Since then, student achievement and test scores have not improved, but have continued to languish in mediocrity relative to other advanced nations.

A serious problem in addressing the unhelpful behemoth is that interest groups, particularly union interests, treat criticism of the federal role as if it were criticism of the concept of education, as if pulling Washington’s paws back were the same thing as razing the local school house. When interest group power grabs meet political grandstanding and fearfulness, good policy suffers.

American communities elect local school boards and state legislatures. These institutions have all the authority and resources necessary to administer a quality education system, and did a good job for most of America’s history. Transferring more power and money to DC has not improved education. The former bodies are closer to, more representative of, and more accessible to the families they serve than the remote federal government. Trump’s directive to DeVos to figure out how to restore more authority to states and communities is a healthy step. It doesn’t actually grant her any additional power as she already has authority to administer and change Department priorities and actions. It does, though, give direction and stature to her task and demonstrate that she has the president’s support in her efforts.