Education

Is free speech on campus under threat?

Posted May 23

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and libertarian oil magnate Charles Koch argue in a coauthored Wall Street Journal op ed that free speech on America's campus is under threat.

Both men are billionaires, but they are politically poles apart. When he was mayor of New York, Bloomberg sought to reduce obesity by limiting the size of soda cups. He is also a vocal supporter of gun control. As an outspoken libertarian, Koch shares few of Bloomberg's views on regulation. But they do both agree on gay marriage.

"Across America, college campuses are increasingly sanctioning so-called 'safe spaces,' 'speech codes,' 'trigger warnings,' 'microaggressions' and the withdrawal of invitations to controversial speakers," Bloomberg and Koch write. "By doing so, colleges are creating a climate of intellectual conformity that discourages open inquiry, debate and true learning. Students and professors who dare challenge this climate, or who accidentally run afoul of it, can face derision, contempt, ostracism — and sometimes even official sanctions."

Another billionaire currently concerned about suppression of differing perspectives is J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, who delivered the keynote address at the PEN USA literary awards in New York Monday night.

"In my 20s, I worked for Amnesty International, where I learned exactly how high a price people across the world have paid and continue to pay for the freedoms that we in the West sometimes take for granted," Rowling told the audience. "In fact, I worry that we may be in danger of allowing their erosion through sheer complacency. The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse."

Indeed, there are some indications some on the left are growing uncomfortable with the growing insistence on conformity on campuses.

"College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea," reads a headline at the satirical website, The Onion.

“As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” a fictitious college administrator says in The Onion piece.

More seriously, left-of-center New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who recently published a "Confession of Liberal Intolerance," said, "The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose."

And in a New York Magazine piece, Jonathan Chait described the chilling effect this type of discourse has upon classrooms.

"At a growing number of campuses," Chait wrote, "professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses."

Email: eschulzke@deseretnews.com

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