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E-Pluribus | May 3, 2022
A small school with a big free speech problem, why campus speech codes are a bad idea, and some left-right agreement on President Biden's "Ministry of Truth."
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Jeffrey H. Anderson: A Tyranny of the Minority
St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania is a relatively small school, but Jeffrey Anderson writes at City Journal that recent actions by the administration are nonetheless a big deal. After some students complained about some of the content of a recent panel discussion (Anderson was one of the speakers,) the president of the college announced that in the future, all speakers would have to be administration-approved and that only those with “responsible opinion[s]” would make the cut, a condition Anderson says is antithetical to free expression and academic freedom.
After a few of the many students who had attended Azerrad’s talk complained about it, President Taylor and his administration initially censored the publication not only of the video of Azerrad’s presentation but also of the videos of the other eight conference presentations as well, as Howland recounted for City Journal. After being pressured by national organizations that fight for freedom of speech, the administration subsequently relented on posting the videos. But then it promptly took aim at the Center that Watson has built, giving every indication that the administration is determined to make this the final such free-flowing Culture and Policy Conference that St. Vincent College will ever allow.
President Taylor released a letter on April 19 saying that in order to “protect the diversity of opinion critical to our students’ educational growth,” only “responsible opinion” will henceforth be allowed to be expressed at St. Vincent. The judges of “responsible opinion” will not be serious scholars like Watson but rather the college president and his administrative cabinet. Taylor writes, “The President and Cabinet members will now approve all sponsored speakers.”
[ . . . ]
So, what was so objectionable about Professor Azerrad’s presentation that it could be said to justify effectively torpedoing a decades-old center that has been an academic jewel? In his letter, Taylor claims that Azerrad’s remarks were “inconsistent with the fundamental mission of the College,” which “centers around the inherent belief that only when we lift up human dignity can we move the world forward.” Since Azerrad apparently failed this fuzzy test, Taylor says, “I . . . denounce this lecture and am sorry that this happened at Saint Vincent.” Taylor adds that students and faculty should “be inspired to search for truth,” but only if that search will “lift up human dignity.” If the latter condition is not met, then the search for truth apparently must yield. A college that genuinely understands its mission would be embarrassed to suggest that a significant tension exists between the search for truth and the fostering of dignity.
Read the whole thing.
Greg Lukianoff and Talia Barnes: Some Lessons from the Sorry History of Campus Speech Codes
The struggle between the need for colleges to maintain order within a serious learning environment for students and the desire for open and (mostly) unrestrained discourse and debate has been a reality since at least the 1960s. At Persuasion, Greg Lukianoff and Talia Barnes of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) give a history lesson on one tool (speech codes) administrators have often resorted to to rein in students and why those codes inevitably fail.
The proliferation of censorial policies on campus almost certainly fuels the trends of skepticism of open deliberation and support for “canceling” those with unorthodox views. The data bear this out, revealing alarming levels of intolerance and support for illiberal forms of protest among current college students, a majority of whom oppose inviting a wide variety of controversial speakers to campus. Two-thirds of students think it is, to some degree, acceptable to shout down campus speakers, and 41% say the same about physically blocking entry to events. Reflecting the same failure of campus policies to distinguish between speech and violence, 23% of students even say the same about using violence to stop a campus speech.
Surveys of faculty also paint a troubling picture. A notable portion, from a variety of academic disciplines, openly admit they would discriminate against colleagues (e.g., during peer-review) for ideological reasons. And almost one-in-four social science or humanities faculty surveyed in the U.S. in fact supported at least one campaign to dismiss a dissenting academic. Since 2015, 589 attempts to professionally sanction scholars for constitutionally protected expression have occurred—nearly two-thirds of which were successful, resulting in some form of sanction. In 2022 alone, there have already been 44 sanctioning attempts—and we’re only a third of the way through the year!
These attitudinal trends have real human costs. In an environment where any censorship goes, students face discipline for anything from inquiring about a rumor of sexual misconduct to parodying a gender studies handout to booing at a soccer game. A notable portion of them self-censor with some frequency when it comes to controversial topics because they are concerned with how their peers and professors will react. Scholars, too, have reason to work and study in fear, knowing their jobs can be threatened for transgressions as minor as posting a mean tweet about Mike Pence, or including pedagogically relevant redacted references to racial slurs in course materials.
Read it all here.
Eugene Robinson: The Disinformation Governance Board is a bad name and a sillier idea
The leak of the draft Supreme Court abortion case opinion has set off a new round of what will surely be an extremely rancorous and nasty ideological fight between the left and right, so it’s worth noting that for one brief shining moment, the two sides found at least a small patch of common ground: rejection of the Biden administration’s Disinformation Governance Board. While taking obligatory potshots at Republicans and conservatives, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post says the administration should “pull the plug on the new board…. [a]nd never speak of it again.”
The problems begin with the worst name I’ve ever heard the federal government come up with, and that’s saying something. Disinformation Governance Board? To call the unit’s name Orwellian is an insult to George Orwell, who was a masterful prose stylist and who wrote a famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” railing against sins such as “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.”
I can see how disinformation requires monitoring. I can see how it requires fact-checking and refutation. But governance? How do you govern lies?
Beyond the issue of the name is the still-mystifying question about what the board is supposed to do. At congressional hearings this past week, Mayorkas veered from pitching it as an effort to counteract Russian-style meddling in our elections to portraying it as an effort to protect Spanish-speaking migrants from lies told by the criminals who smuggle them into the country. He failed to make clear exactly how the board was supposed to accomplish either of these tasks.
[ . . . ]
I don’t believe for a minute that the purpose of the board is to somehow police the speech of American citizens. But in the absence of a clear statement of mission and vision from Mayorkas — or, for that matter, anyone in the Biden administration — the far right is practically being invited to portray the Disinformation Governance Board as part of a vast (and imaginary) conspiracy to censor conservative voices.
Read it all.
Bari Weiss, with comments from Aaron Sibarium and Jessica Lessin, on the Supreme Court leak, the harm it will do to the institution, and what it says about the state of the legal profession:
Via Heterodox Academy, Arif Ahmed of the University of Cambridge writes at Times Higher Education about academic freedom:
And finally, via FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff, a look at the crowd outside the Supreme Court last night, and a reminder about free speech: