The Death and Resurrection of Academic Freedom

Free speech on college campuses has been subject of much heated debate over the last couple of years within the United States, as well as places like Canada. Just since the onset of 2017, there have been multiple instances of speakers being “de-platformed”, vandalism, individual acts of violence, and riots. The outlash is increasingly becoming a serious issue. However, these social justice warriors may be winning a few battles, but they’re ultimately losing the war.

There are four main ways worth noting that speech is currently being censored or completely shut down on college campuses in the United States: by the pushing of a politically correct agenda, censorship of anything that falls outside of that agenda, the de-platforming of speakers and ideologies, and the escalation into various forms of physical aggression when the other three tactics are proving to be ineffective.

An Explicit Agenda

There’s this common saying: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. An idea dating back to Socrates, a scholar who lived during the days of the Greek empire. In the modern day, the Socratic method has shown to be effective in teaching students critical thinking skills and the necessity of questioning unexamined beliefs. This sometimes leads to discomfort and anger in the learning process. However, as necessary as this is for intellectual ferment, modern day academia is often taking an entirely different approach.

New York University social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, co-authored a  controversial piece entitled ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ that was published in the Atlantic back in September of 2015. He makes the case that “vindictive protectiveness” is teaching students to think in such a way that “prepares them poorly for professional life” because this often tends to necessitate intellectually engaging with people and ideas that one might find morally wrong. Not only does this poorly prepare students for the future, but it apparently has more immediate effects as well.

As stated in the article:

“A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”

The article also makes a case against two terms that have made their way into the mainstream on college campuses; being microaggressions and trigger warnings. The former is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.” The latter is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting.” While the terms themselves may not be an issue, their applications certainly have become one.

For example, there were faculty training sessions at ten different institutions a while back within the University of California system that presented a list of microaggressions which included “Where are you from or where were you born?” and “America is the land of opportunity,” as well as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” There have also been cases of Harvard professors being asked not to teach rape law or use the word “violate” because it could trigger some students.

The American Association of University Professors (ASSP) explicitly emphasizes that this demand for trigger warnings represses critical thinking. They also state that:

“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”


On college campuses today, there is an environment of hostility. There are incidents such as Michigan State University recently going to the extent of banning whiteboards in dorms because, as a student in support of the ban who appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight stated:

“There’s a difference between you expressing a view and you providing intimidation and harassment to another student.”

This statement came after Carlson questioned him on why he supports this ban if he’s also in support of freedom of expression. In this student’s own words, he says it is “essential to our country.” As Tucker points out: why not also ban pens, keyboards, and other “instruments of divergent opinion” if we’re going to go after the methods of communication rather than the individuals using or misusing them? A local branch of the National Associate for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) praised the ban as a “victory” for the school’s black community. Citing an incident where the “N-word” apparently appeared on a black honor student’s whiteboard to justify eliminating them in the dorms all-together.

There are, however, a number of student and other private organizations out there fighting against this phenomena. Among those referenced to or cited in this article are Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), The Leadership Institute’s Campus Reform, and PragerU.

Out of 900 total YAL chapters, 247 of them are subject to speech codes which limit their ability to organize. The mission behind YAL’s Fight for Free Speech campaign is to challenge and reform these unconstitutional speech codes and to educate students on the importance of the first amendment. At the end of December, the organization had 804 chapters. Before the end of February 2017, they had grown to more than 900 chapters–a true testament of success for the youth liberty movement.

So, what are these speech codes? They are defined as “any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large.” These codes began to gain popularity in the 1980’s and 90’s around the same time that discriminatory barriers were on the decline, and both female and minority enrollment began to increase. Due to concern that the educational access of these new students would cause tensions, the administrators at different schools began to put these codes into place.

In the 1990’s, speech codes on campus began to converge with the expansion of Title IX, which is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination of educational institutes that receive federal funding. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation into Santa Rosa Junior College in 1994 after an advertisement in the school newspaper which included a woman in a bikini was deemed “sexist” by one student, Louis Arata, and lead to a debate in an online student bulletin board. In this discussion, some of the messages expressed included “anatomically explicit and sexually derogatory terms” to describe Arata and Jennifer Branham, a female newspaper staffer.

The OCR concluded that this incident had created a “hostile educational environment” and instructed the school to enact a ban on any online speech which “has the purpose or effect of creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive educational environment.” Despite the fact that federal courts have overturned these speech codes at various institutions time and time again over the past couple of decades, they continue to thrive at many others.

FIRE conducted a survey entitled Spotlight On Speech Codes 2017. Data was collected via publicly available policies from a total of 449 schools–345 public institutions and 104 private institutions–and found that 39.6 percent of them have highly restrictive speech codes that prohibit what would otherwise be constitutionally protected speech. The research focuses more on public institutions due to the fact that they’re supposed to be bound by the law to protect first amendment rights.

The organization breaks down categories of these schools on a basis of “red light,” “yellow light,” and “green light” policies:

  • Red Light: This rating is given to an institution which has at least one policy that both “clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.” This denies prospective students and their parents the ability to know what they’re getting into prior to enrollment. Another example is a ban on “offensive speech.” Among the institutions with this rating include many top universities such as Princeton, Rice, John Hopkins, and Harvard.
  • Yellow Light: This rating is given to an institution with policies that restrict more narrow categories of speech. One example would be a policy banning “verbal abuse.” This has broad applications and, while it is technically a threat to free speech, it is not a clear violation because “abuse” could refer to forms of unprotected speech, such as genuine threats of violence or harassment. A few universities with a “yellow light” rating include Brown, Stanford, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Colorado State.
  • Green Light: This kind of rating simply means that the school’s written policies do not pose a serious threat to free speech. However, it does not necessarily indicate that a school goes above and beyond to support free expression. Among the few institutions with a “green light” rating are Mississippi State, Arizona State, Duke, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Source: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

Fortunately, there is good news. This is the ninth year in a row that the percentage of schools with red light policies have been on a steady decline, and this year’s drop was nearly ten percentage points. Last year, the number of schools with a red light rating was at 49.3 percent. As of this year, that number is down to 39.6 percent. The number of green light schools has increased to twenty-seven, as of September 2016, from the previous year’s number of twenty-two. 

A number of schools are also adopting statements explicitly in support of free speech. Many of which are modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January of 2015. There are about twenty schools in FIRE’s database that have endorsed versions of the “Chicago Statement.”   


Many different speakers have either been disinvited from speaking or silenced by protesters while attempting to speak. Even human rights activists like Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim who often criticizes Islam and fled Iran during the Iranian Revolution, have been disinvited to avoid offending Muslims. Gaining condemnation from the likes of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins; neither of whom are strangers to this phenomenon.

As a University of California-Berkeley professor in the 1960’s, Dawkins participated in the free speech movement and has expressed that “denying people the right to speak on campuses” is a “betrayal.” Nowadays, the attitude among the liberal students and professors is the exact opposite.

Jewish Canadian human rights activist, author, television host, and “commander” at the Rebel Media, Ezra Levant, is also no stranger to opposition on campus. When Ezra showed up to Ryerson University to deliver a speech on the 22nd of March, the first thing that happened was the venue being changed at the last second to a place that could fit about half as many people as the first venue due to security concerns. Which isn’t surprising, given that the Rebel now has to have paid bodyguards for their staff, especially for the female journalist, given that “left-wing men punch them all the time.”

There were protesters there who had emergency sirens going off for ninety minutes straight, loudly blowing rape whistles, as well as signs denouncing “white supremacy.”

Levant elaborated on this nonsense with:

“Yeah, guys. I’m not a Nazi. I’m a Jew. White supremacists don’t typically have a lot of time for Jews.”

This wouldn’t be the first time they try to paint a Jew as a Nazi or some other brand of white supremacist. Both Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro have been irresponsibly thrown under this umbrella by professors and students alike, as well as having had events of their own shut down by leftists on campus.

University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, is another academic who is no stranger to being shut down by left-wing protestors. Ever since he took a stand against the mandatory use of specific gender pronouns, he has been surrounded by controversy. He was recently invited to speak at McMaster University by a student group to give a talk on the subjects of political correctness and free speech. He was going to be one of four speakers on a panel, but the other three backed out when they heard news that there were going to be protests.

When Peterson was speaking, protesters used tools like a megaphone, cowbells, and air horns to prevent him from speaking. After about thirty minutes, he moved his talk outside. Which the protesters followed. He considers the inspiration for these people is a “radical postmodern” philosophy that focuses only on groups and ignores the individual.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Peterson stated that:

“The borderline between uncivil and violent behavior is very thin, and what happened at McMaster, where someone with a bullhorn dominated the entire event — repeating the same inane phrases over and over — subjugated the desires of all the people who came there to listen. We’re talking about hijacking a fundamental right.”

Aggression & Violence

As if all of the events mentioned in this piece thus far aren’t bad enough, it gets worse. From incidents such as YAL students literally being arrested for handing out pocket constitutions to the vandalism of property to people being physically assaulted. None of these things should be considered acceptable.

When libertarian socialist, political scientist, and author, Charles Murray, was scheduled to give a speech in the beginning of March at Vermont’s Middlebury College, dozens of student protesters stood up and turned their back to him while chanting things like “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away.” Not only was the lecture eventually canceled and Murray moved to a private room to where he could stream the talk online to a live audience, but it gets worse.

A female professor who moderated the Q&A session, Allison Stranger, actually says she feared for her life. With the angry mob outside banging on the windows and pulling fire alarms, she said, “I thought they were going to break through, and I then wondered what would happen next.” Well, what happened next was even worse.

When Murray and Stranger were trying to leave campus, they were swarmed by a mob of protestors. Ms. Stranger was grabbed by the hair and shoved; damaging muscles, tendons, and fascia in her neck. Which she ended up in the emergency room later that day for. Once they finally made it to Murray’s car, protestors surrounded them, banged on the sides, rocked the vehicle, and even climbed on top of it. They were even followed by the protestors to the restaurant they went to afterward, so they had to move locations then as well.

This is not an isolated incident. The now infamous incident at UC-Berkeley, where a Milo Yiannopoulos speech was supposed to take place, is among the worst. More than $100,000 in damage was done to the campus, fireworks were shot and rocks were thrown, fires were started, windows were smashed, barricades were torn apart, and at least six people were physically attacked and injured in the process. As a campus lockdown was declared Yiannopoulos had to be evacuated.


This is the kind of mob rule our constitution is supposed to protect against, yet our public institutions are continuously violating their legal obligations. With the exception of the few institutions with a “green light” rating from FIRE. Thankfully, the number of green light schools are increasing and there are a number of organizations and individuals fighting against this phenomena.  

Not only are we fighting back; we’re winning.