Free Speech Is on Its Deathbed in Academia—But Students Will Save It

Free Speech Is on Its Deathbed in Academia—But Students Will Save It
Students on the campus of the University of Chicago in Chicago, Ill., in a file photo. (EQRoy/Shutterstock)
Christopher Phillips

While in high school, I dreamed of attending a university where my right to say what I believe would remain sacred. I therefore enrolled at the University of Chicago because of its advertised commitment to unfettered academic inquiry.

Upon attending, however, I quickly realized that the famed values upon which the school had been founded and prospered had become little more than marketing spin. I have found that while the university publicly boasts of the merits of academic inquiry and freedom of speech, behind the scenes now exists an entrenched left-wing establishment of administrators and pseudo-academics.

Universities nationwide are betraying America’s dedication to fierce debate and intellectual openness by falling to the disturbing trend of devotion to leftist political innovations—at their own expense.

UChicago initially differentiated itself by defying this trend. In 2014, in the heat of academia’s illiberal pivot, President Robert J. Zimmer assembled the Committee on Freedom of Expression to establish the Chicago Principles—a report affirming the university’s opposition to safe spaces and dedication to uninhibited debate on campus adopted by over 80 other universities, such as Princeton, Columbia, and Georgetown.
Zimmer has since been replaced by Paul Alivisatos, who was the executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley for the prior four years, the period in which Cal pushed some of the worst censorship in its history.
Berkeley isn’t alone—the nation’s most prestigious universities have abandoned their commitment to free expression, seen through the experiences of speakers like Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law, who was shouted down in an embarrassing show of intolerance.
Similarly, Riley Gaines at SF State was actually held for ransom by aggressive students. Both of these speakers experienced administrators siding with the disruptors and against free discourse.
In April 2022, to initiate UChicago’s long slide, the university’s Institute of Politics made a mockery of its “nonpartisan” label as it held its “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference. How could a university institute that proclaimed itself to be so staunchly anti-censorship advocate for the shutting down of ideas in such an explicit way?
Naturally, we would use the Chicago Principles to protect the Chicago Principles—we challenged the conference’s agenda by questioning the speakers relentlessly. I asked then-CNN host Brian Stelter why, if legacy media journalists are objective and honest, CNN makes so many “mistakes” entirely in support of the left.

I still remember his initial quip, which also happened to be the most substantive part of his response: “It’s time for lunch!” The moment was a great triumph, but there is absolutely more work to be done.

The backsliding on free speech and free expression at America’s top universities over the past 20 years through the introduction of free speech zones, safe spaces, and other pro-censorship innovations is a betrayal of the Western traditions that made our civilization and country great.

The problem, though, for the censorious demagogues at universities is that free thinkers simply will not stand down in this fight.

After Judge Duncan’s speech, Stanford conservative students led the fight to punish DEI henchman Tirien Steinbach who condoned the anti-free speech shutdown.
And in an interesting yet predictable phenomenon, a new wave of student conservative (or simply pro-free speech) papers are popping up on campuses nationwide.
UChicago conservative students clamored against the university’s COVID booster mandate in the winter of 2022, and the administration revoked that mandate (and the overall vaccine mandate) months later.
We are also hosting an on-campus symposium titled “Academia’s COVID Failures,” featuring speakers like Scott Atlas, Jonathan Turley, Larry Arnn, Jay Bhattacharya, and The Epoch Times’ own Jan Jekielek, which will revisit the ivory tower’s policy of censorship during the pandemic.

Unless universities course-correct, academia is headed for a dark age, the degree of which will be unprecedented.

What my leftist peers fail to understand is that their conduct will inevitably result in the destruction of the institutions they currently hold.

If free thinkers are continuously silenced, they will head to institutions that commit to free discourse.

The cost of this transition on society is nontrivial, and will lead to a deep blemish on the profile of the United States.

The American story has taught us that the best ideas always win in the end, and if you can’t get on board with that, you will be left in the dust.

An understanding of the peril our nation presently faces lies in this truth: freedom of expression is under attack at American universities, and if the University of Chicago abandons free speech, the integrity of every other institution nationwide, no matter its history, is in jeopardy.

We consider it our responsibility to continue fighting for the Chicago Principles and for all Americans’ freedom of speech, especially on university campuses, which drive the national debate.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Christopher Phillips is a student at the University of Chicago.
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