Free Speech Is in Big Trouble on Campuses

floyd_abrams-460x307These remarks by the noted First Amendment expert were delivered in New York last night (Oct. 23) at the 15th anniversary dinner of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the foremost protector of free speech in higher education.


This is an extraordinarily perilous moment with respect to free speech on campuses around the nation. It sometimes seems as if students—too many of them, anyway—seem to want to see and hear only views they already hold. And that colleges and universities seem willing to pander to that desire. And to participate in limiting what other may wish to see and hear. On bad days, it reminds of an old New Yorker cartoon in which one member of the Supreme Court whispers to another, “Do you ever have a day when everything seems so unconstitutional?” And even on good ones, it’s sure disturbing.

For every judicial decision striking down one speech code or another in publicly funded universities, it sometimes seems that another dozen are adapted. For every absurd, outrageous, humiliating speech—destructive withdrawal of already made invitations for prominent individuals to speak on campus, another and still another seems to occur.

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Total shock—Casablanca and Chapel Hill


Move over Captain Renault. Like the Claude Rains character in Casablanca who was “shocked, shocked” to learn that there was gambling at Ricks, Carol Folt  seems terribly surprised that athletes at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she is chancellor, were attending (or not attending) bogus classes and getting high bogus marks. How could she know? The practice of  make-believe marks for jocks had been going on for only 18 years. Who could figure things out that fast?  But she had an explanation: “The fake classes thrived for so long because it was hard for people to fathom that they could even exist.”  What? Or as Joe Asch explained on Dartblog, this is a chancellor’s version of a comment by philosopher Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

How Are Our Colleges Faring?

Just a few short weeks ago, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa once again rocked the world of American higher education with the publication of their new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. Their study found that many of today’s college graduates were not provided with the tools and skills to transition smoothly to adult life. Many are unemployed or grossly underemployed, and the transition to greater financial and civic responsibility is anything but easy.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has just released a study that uncovers why so many graduates of expensive, reputable universities are facing such difficulty. What Will They Learn? shows that, despite their promises, too many of America’s college and universities fail to provide a well-rounded preparation for career and community.

In our modern, globalized world, only 13% of the nearly 1,100 schools we evaluated require the equivalent of three semesters of foreign language study. Though modern campuses are full of social “activists,” many students are ill-prepared to be informed citizens—less than 20% of schools require a foundational course in U.S. history or government, and just over 3% require even a single course in basic economics. With all the national buzz about our need for more STEM education, it does not bode well that less than two-thirds of schools require college-level math.

What are students taking instead? At Harvard, they can fulfill their literature requirement with “American Dreams from Scarface to Easy Rider.” At the University of Colorado-Boulder, students can take “Horror Films and American Culture” or “America Through Basketball” in lieu of an American history course.

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Cathy Young: Groupthink Hits the Federalist Society

In its response to my column on my relationship with the Federalist Society’s speakers bureau, the Federalist Society claims that it continues to host events on the same topic that got me dropped from their list—challenging hardline feminist doctrines on “rape culture” and rape legislation—and speakers who share the same “basic perspective” as mine.

The response offers three examples: an upcoming panel at its Lawyers’ Convention, a discussion at the Los Angeles Lawyers’ Chapter, and a multimedia feature on its website. What’s missing here? A single event at a student chapter. This makes me wonder whether, in fact, debate on this subject is now effectively out of bounds at law schools.

Meanwhile, a past Federalist Society chapter president, Ron Coleman, has posted a remarkable comment on my column, arguing that the national leadership’s decision was probably shaped by a climate in which being associated with a group that takes a politically incorrect stance could affect the academic and future professional career of law students. I would say that that is the definition of caving to campus orthodoxy.

Mr. Coleman also implies (if I’m reading him correctly) that I “called out” the Federalist Society leadership out of bitterness at the loss of revenues from speaking engagements. I can assure him that I would have spoken out just the same if this kind of blacklisting had happened to someone else. In fact, several friends advised me against “burning my bridges,” suggesting that after some passage of time the Federalist Society might reverse the ban. Whether or not that would have possible, I chose to speak out because I think the current “chilly climate” (to borrow a feminist term) for campus speech is a dangerous problem.

Finally, in response to those who have pointed out that the Federalist Society doesn’t owe me anything: yes, I said as much in my article. The speakers’ bureau updates its list of speakers before each academic year. Had they told me they were not going to have me on their next year’s list for any reason—even wanting to make room for new speakers—I would have had absolutely no cause to complain and would have remained grateful for past speaking opportunities. Instead, I was abruptly kicked off the list and ordered to cancel already existing speaking engagements on the grounds of making unspecified offensive statements. (I realized that student feedback is confidential, but surely at least the comments could have been quoted without names.) I am still grateful to all the student volunteers, faculty advisors, and faculty members who debated me or commented on my events.

My purpose in going public was not to settle scores; it was to call attention to a troubling situation in which groupthink on “the rape culture” seems to be affecting even right-of-center organizations.

The Federalist Society Responds to Cathy Young

The Federalist Society aims to host programs on law school campuses and elsewhere on important and controversial legal topics by offering top libertarian and conservative thinkers a small speaking fee and defraying their travel expenses.

Cathy Young recently posted a piece objecting to our decision no longer to include her on the list of speakers we encourage our student chapters to invite in this manner. We had included her initially because we appreciate her columns and her willingness to tackle important and controversial topics, often from a perspective that is insufficiently heard.

As anyone familiar with the Federalist Society knows, we don’t shy away from controversy, and we continue to host events with speakers on the range of topics that Ms. Young claims we are unwilling to address, including  “Civil Rights on Campus,” a featured topic at our largest event of the year, the upcoming Lawyers Convention, an event last month with Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute and others in Los Angeles on “The Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic”  and one featuring an extended discussion of this question by Civil Rights Commissioner and Professor Gail Heriot at our panel on “Passion and Prudence in The Political Process: The debate Over Civil Rights Policy.” (Commissioner Heriot’s remarks begin at the 9:08 mark).

We appreciate Ms. Young’s contributions to the public debate on these questions. But based on feedback from Federalist Society student chapter members who had invited her because they were eager to hear her point of view, at the present time we are opting to recommend other individuals (who share Young’s basic perspective) to debate and speak about these issues.