Policy Documents

Besieged with P.C. from the Left and Right

Elizabeth Wright –
April 1, 2006

In “Free Speech on Campus: Under Attack from Both Directions?” (March 28, 2005; http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1484) Donald Downs of the Independent Institute warns about the possible consequences of actions taken to shut down dissent by hotheads on the political left and right. He cites the troubles of Harvard University’s president Larry Summers, who stumbled into a P.C. mess after publicly speculating on the reasons why women might have less aptitude at the higher ends of science and math than men.

At the other end of the P.C. scale, Downs reflects on the resignation by the University of Colorado’s president, in wake of Professor Ward Churchill’s speeches, in which he compared victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks to morally culpable “little Eichmanns.” Churchill’s brutally harsh remarks sparked not only a presidential resignation, but the Wisconsin legislature actually introduced and debated a resolution, which would have empowered the university’s Board of Regents to fire the tenured Churchill, and to do the same in the future to any professor whose ideas they deem “dishonorable.”

Downs warns of what such moves might eventually do to the “very fabric of academic freedom.” He writes:

“These responses suggest that many individuals who should know better have not learned the lessons of the last fifteen years, when a different type of censorship began to spread across college campuses around the country: censorship in the name of ‘politically correct’ leftist causes. Such censorship sent a chill across higher education, unfairly ruining many careers in the process. The Churchill affair portends the return of a more traditional type of censorship: that purveyed by the right, coming from outside the university’s gates. Suddenly, academic freedom is besieged from both the left and the right.”

All of which sets one to wondering if “getting even” is all that it’s about. Is it possible that the struggles experienced by conservative students, as they have fought restrictions on their speech by heavy-handed P.C. leftists, will be countered with more censorship? Downs describes the case of Professor Hans Hoppe, who, in a class at the University of Nevada, referenced homosexuals and generalized about their behavior in terms of the theory of “time preferences.” An intrusive investigation of Hoppe by the university’s administration fortunately ended without punishment of the professor. Downs maintains:

“All of these cases reflect the political imbalance of faculties nationwide and the politically selective way in which some on the left have reacted to the most prominent threats to free speech and academic freedom on campus. Conservatives have borne the brunt of speech codes and related policies, and have comprised the vast majority of speakers who have been shouted down when they enter the campus public forum. Too many on the left have not spoken out against such forms of censorship, probably because the other side’s ox was being gored. Indeed, Churchill himself has obstructed Columbus Day parades, claiming that they represent ‘hate speech.’ He was no champion of free speech until his own speech came under attack.”

Yes, the left is, indeed, getting a taste of what it’s like to have college administrations use their power to harass, intimidate, and sometimes dismiss those who express unpopular views. Downs, who teaches political science and law, and is also author of a new book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, concludes:

“The last thing American campuses need is censorship from the right piling onto the preexisting censorship from the left. Universities will not regain the public trust that they have squandered until they stand up and defend the principles of free speech and academic freedom for everyone, regardless of their politics.”

Elizabeth Wright (editor@issues-views.com) is editor of Issues & Views. For more information, visit the publication’s Web site at http://www.issues-views.com/. This article appeared in the April 4, 2005 edition and is reprinted with permission.

For more information ...

To learn more about civil liberties on the college campus, visit the Web site of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), at http://www.thefire.org/.

Donald Downs’ book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus (Cambridge University Press, December 2004), is available through Amazon.com.