NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Freedom of speech is increasingly under threat in many college and university campuses throughout the country, according to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Speech suppression in schools is a “very timely and serious issue” that needs addressing, she urged.
A college “should be a place where we explore other opinions and ideas,” but today “that possibility is more and more controlled,” she said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 22.
The free speech crisis in U.S. schools is not a new issue. It has, however, escalated in recent years. Speaker shout-downs, classroom invasions, and attacking faculty members and students have spun out of control, according to experts.
Freedom of speech has become a big issue in recent years, especially for conservative students. They claim that they face intolerance, and even violence, from students and teachers.
“I think there is more silence among conservative students,” said Ryan Christens who studies political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“They’re afraid to put their views out there because they might receive backlash from their friends. And I know, I’ve definitely experienced that.”
Nearly 20 students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2016 shouted down conservative commentator Ben Shapiro who was invited to campus as a speaker. The incident drew national media attention.
Protesters claimed that Shapiro’s presence on campus was a threat to minority students. Although the university had protest guidelines, the police failed to enforce them.
In order to prevent such incidents, the Board of Regents of the university approved a policy last year, allowing the school to suspend and expel students who disrupt campus speeches.
“All speakers should be allowed to have their voices heard,” Christens said.
“I’m really happy that our campus passed that statute,” he said. “But I think in other schools it is still a problem.”
‘A New Era of Groupthink’
Last year, there were a number of speaker disruptions and protests in colleges that drew national attention including the Milo Yiannopoulos riot at Berkeley, the Charles Murray shout-down at Middlebury, the Heather Mac Donald shout-downs at UCLA and Claremont, and the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley due to security concerns.
Americans are in a “new era of groupthink,” according to Morton Keller, a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University.
“Its primary advocates are part of a left-wing, anti-American tradition that has long been part of the American intellectual scene,” he told The Atlantic.
He said the movement gained strength in recent years from extreme elements of old and new strains of political thought including anarchism, socialism, feminism, and black nationalism.
“The most conspicuously organized presence on today’s anti-free speech college stage is Antifa, whose expansive definition of who and what is ‘Nazism’ extends to just about everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders,” he said.
Emily Kaib is one of the many conservative students who face speech suppression on a daily basis. She is a freshman student at the University of Pittsburgh and studies economics and political science.
She claimed that all professors and even teaching assistants at her school are liberals.
“I don’t know if I have met a single conservative professor,” she said.
Kaib thinks that students are intimidated to raise their hands and express different opinions on topics like immigration or gun control.
“The person is grading you at the end of the day. And you pay a lot of money to go to school and get a good GPA,” she said.
“So students say what their professors want to hear. And it’s really difficult to stray away from that.”
Such threats to free speech on college campuses are growing, according to Secretary DeVos.
“We have seen more and more examples on college campuses in recent years of shutting down free open expression and debate around ideas,” she said.
College students should share their views without censorship and fear, she said.
“This administration is committed to upholding those freedoms of expression and exchange of ideas.”
Even high school students face bullying from their classmates and teachers for expressing their political views. Laura Rose Cardona is one of them.
“I grew up in Williamsburg, New York, which is completely yuppie, completely liberal,” she said.
She was the only conservative student in her high school.
“As soon as I came out being conservative and voiced my political views I lost all my friends in a heartbeat,” she explained.
“People threatened to jump me basically every week. Thankfully it didn’t happen.”
She said even some of the teachers called her “stupid [expletive] Republican.”
Cardona is now studying at King’s College, a Christian liberal arts college in New York City. She is a member of a youth organization that advocates free speech on campuses.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, shrugs off comments about the demise of free speech at universities and colleges.
According to him, the state of college campuses is pretty good.
“My instinct is that these commentators are taking some examples of outlandish protest and crass behavior to paint an inaccurate picture of the majority of students,” he told the Atlantic.
Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, however, thinks it’s wrong to dismiss shout-downs as isolated incidents.
Schools’ failure to discipline disruptors aggravates the crisis on campuses, he wrote in an article in National Review.
“Unless educators and legislators tackle the need to discipline speaker shout-downs, classroom invasions, building takeovers, and the like, campuses will continue to spin out of control,” he warned.