New York Times Discovers Free Speech Problem on Campus

“Late to the party” is not supposed to be the description applied to America’s self-proclaimed newspaper of record, but it certainly applies today.  The New York Times has discovered that there is a problem with tolerance towards dissent on at least one college campus.  Specifically, the Times is condemning the actions of a City University of New York trustee who blocked an honorary degree to an author he found too critical of Israel.

Certainly the trustee’s actions are out of tune with any principle of respect for free speech.  But honorary degrees are hardly the stuff of grand outrages. The fact that the Times took such note of this highlights its silence (and that of most progressives) towards the much more pervasive problem of campus speech codes that prohibit criticism or dissent regarding “multiculturalism” or other sacred cows of the left.  If it is outrageous to bar a well-paid and prominent author from getting an honorary degree because he criticizes Israel, isn’t it even more outrageous for professors and administrators to berate and threaten a powerless college student who dares to admit to being a conservative?  Yet one can search the Times and progressive blogs forever without finding a single mention of those incidents, which are unfortunately much more common.

The unfortunate truth is that progressive liberalism has often lost touch with its own core principles regarding free speech.  The right of dissent that it championed in the “free speech movement” at Berkeley in the 1960s and as recently as two years ago when many progressives sported “dissent is patriotic” bumper stickers has, with the installation of a Democratic President and Democratic control of (at least one house of) Congress, been relegated to a tertiary concern at best.  For example, too many of the protest events surrounding the controversy over union bargaining rights and looming state budget crises in Wisconsin and other states have become about enforcing rigid ideological conformity rather than fostering real dissent. Many of those who dissent from the “required thought” of the union bosses and their progressive ideological enforcers have been shouted down and occasionally even physically attacked.  It has become routine among many progressives to condemn all Republicans, all conservatives, and most moderates as morally evil and mentally ill.

Such attitudes become very dangerous on college campuses, where upwards of 90% of professors and administrators are progressives.  The threat of group-think, where extremism can grow unchecked, is very real in these environments.  And when the extremists are faced with a few cheeky students who push back, the response is all too often reminiscent of authoritarianism rather than liberalism.

There is no doubt that the decision to award an honorary degree to an author should not be vetoed by an inquiry into whether that author was sufficiently pro-Israel or not.  But it would be nice if those who get lathered up over the plight of the author weren’t so quick to lose interest when the 800-pound gorilla of progressive suppression of free speech enters the classroom or marches down the campus mall under an SIEU sign.


For more information about the suppression of free speech on America’s college campuses, visit the non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.


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