With the recent publication of FIRE's list of the twelve top offenders among academic institutions hostile to freedom of speech and expression, we're reminded once again of how bad things are on college campuses these days. And keep in mind that these are only the very worst: lots of others are almost as bad. Note also how many top-tier schools have made this dismal roster.
It's still somewhat strange to anyone who attended college once-upon-a-time, including myself, to consider that college campuses have become so exceedingly hostile to freedom of speech and expression. I can actually remember when intellectual freedom and the free exchange and dispute of ideas was the standard to which the academy adhered proudly, and often instructed the larger society on the value of such precious and hard-won things. That isn't the case now, and hasn't been for some time. It's actually twenty-one years ago this month that then-president of Yale Benno Schmidt, Jr., delivered an address in New York, The University and Freedom, in which he warned ominously that
The most serious problems of freedom of expression in our society today exist on our campuses. On many, freedom of thought is in danger from well-intentioned but misguided efforts to give values of community and harmony a higher place in the university than freedom. The assumption seems to be that the purpose of education is to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind. The issue of freedom in our universities is not only of critical importance to the quality and integrity of higher education. Attitudes on campus often presage tendencies in the larger society. If that is so with respect to freedom of expression, the erosion of principle we have seen throughout our society in recent years may be only the beginning.
Schmidt went on to describe a number of features of the new "civility and community" standards which have now become commonplace, such as the breadth and vagueness of campus codes which provided for open-ended sanctions against "offensive" speech or expression, as well as the bland complacency of most academics in the face of these troubling developments:
On many campuses around the country, perhaps most, there is little resistance to the growing pressure to suppress and and to punish, rather than to answer, speech that offends notions of civility and community. These campuses are heedless of the oldest lesson in the history of freedom and expression, which is that offensive erroneous and obnoxious speech is the price of freedom. Offensive speech cannot be suppressed under open-ended standards without letting loose an engine of censorship that cannot be controlled. Vague and unpredicatble possibilities of punishment for expression on campus not only fly in the face of the lessons of freedom, but are antithetical to the idea of the university.
Unfortunately, Schmidt's prophetic warnings did not arouse a fire (or a FIRE, either) in the belly of most academics to storm the barricades in defense of academic freedom and free speech on campus. Quite the contrary, in fact, since speech codes, harassment codes, civility codes and community values codes, among many other variants, are now standard issue on the great majority of college campuses, introduced with either the placid compliance or enthusiastic endorsement of the majority of faculty members. I wish I couldn't remember so well the time when the present censorious environment would have seemed not only unthinkable but laughable: Seriously? Alas.
Even inadvertant remarks nowadays can get into you more trouble than the proverbial choirboy of yore who let out some dirty talk within hearing of a nun. That was funny at least, even back in the day, but the situation now definitely isn't Not one bit.