Higher ed must denounce attacks on free expression (opinion)

An elite-university student wrote a self-conscious op-ed in The New York Times about getting criticized for stating her opinions on campus, and everyone clutched their pearls and whined about “cancel culture” in higher education. The Washington Post just published a long piece about elite students at the University of Pennsylvania being timid to express their opinions. Sheesh. I call BS. It’s sad and shameful that the student profiled, and the reporters and editors involved, did not spend precious time and column inches exposing and advocating against the real cancellation of free speech and academic freedom that is going on in numerous states in these United States, once known as the world center of freedom and democracy, but inching toward authoritarian repression and downright dictatorship in some jurisdictions. I’m looking at you, Florida (where you can’t “say gay”), Texas (don’t you dare mention “The 1619 Project!”), Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, New Hampshire… and well, just too many to list here.

Let’s be clear: “cancel culture” is not when other people disagree with you for something you said. That’s called normal discourse and debate. Self-censorship is not all bad; all of us hold back at times from saying what we really think (some more than others), and most of our moms taught us to “bite your tongue” rather than be mean.

Let’s talk about what’s really important and stop focusing so narcissistically on whether we’re being unfriended on Facebook or blocked on Twitter for expressing an unpopular opinion. To see real “cancel culture” in action, look at what President Vladimir Putin did to the Russians who dissented from his evil war against Ukraine. Look at what happened to the journalist Jamal Khashoggi for criticizing the government of Saudi Arabia. The United States is certainly not at the level of such brutally evil regimes—and yet, the dangers start at the local level when state legislators and governors start in shockingly authoritarian ways to outlaw the expression of some concepts, to ban books from libraries, to demand that teachers refrain from teaching certain ideas, to require college professors to post syllabi for public scrutiny of “divisive concepts” or risk termination. These are the seedlings of a future authoritarian society. George Orwell warning us.

The New York Times recently published a self-important editorial on freedom of speech, but at least they finally got to the real problem, though a reader had to stick with it through 30 paragraphs (including several poll reports) to get to the bottom to see any meaningful discussion of the real threats to freedom of speech and thought in the actions of the states—the “avalanche of legislation passed by Republican-controlled legislatures around the country that gags discussion of certain topics and clearly violates the spirit of the First Amendment, if not the letter of the law.”

“Since 2021 in 40 state legislatures, 175 bills have been introduced or prefiled that target what teachers can say and what students can learn, often with severe penalties,” the March 18 editorial states. “Of those, 13 have become law in 11 states, and 106 are still under consideration. All told, 99 bills currently target K-12 public schools, 44 target higher education, and 59 include punishment for violators, according to a running tally kept by PEN America.”

As the president of a relatively small minority-serving institution, a women’s college and Roman Catholic college, I do not have the powerful bully pulpit and influence of a president of a large, prestigious university such as those in the Ivy League or major state royals . It is a fact of grave disappointment and concern to me that those presidents are not standing high on the barricades to oppose and denounce the flagrant violations of American values ​​of free speech and free thought that are occurring in the states. Why are they so timid? Silence is complicity.

To understand the extent of the threat, it really is illuminating—indeed, imperative—for educational leaders and people who care about freedom of speech and thought to read the PEN America list of legislation pending in the states (and some laws already adopted) that would ban teaching about certain subjects, including in colleges and including private institutions. The various bills are similar in that they “bar,” “ban” or “prohibit” teaching or training about various topics that generally fall into the categories of race and the history of racial problems in America. “The 1619 Project” is specifically banned in some states. Or what they call critical race theory, even though most of the authors of the legislation have no idea what that really means. Many ban issues related to gender identity and sexuality, or “divisive concepts”—whatever that means.

The list would be simply ludicrous were it not so alarming.

I have often said and written that higher education is and must be the great counterweight to government in a free society. Our great public mission is and must be to express the unwavering value of the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to teach, to research and engage our students in the vigorous and constant exercise of those freedoms. No idea can be too dangerous for us to repress its expression; We can argue against it, we can debate with passion, we can be loud and aggressive in denouncing ideas that we find abhorrent—but we cannot repress their expression, or we risk repressing all expression, not just the idea that we hate.

Education in its very essence is about the clash of ideas and struggle to discern truth amid so many opinions. If we could not teach “divisive concepts,” we would have nothing to teach at all. If education is not about the continuous debate of ideas, then it is nothing but mere recitation of what someone said in the past, with no critical analysis, no illumination with new knowledge, no exercise of independent judgment to discern whether that past idea is truly valid or an old myth.

A central example of the problem is the controversy over “The 1619 Project” about slavery and the founding of this nation. American history, like all of history, is rife with myth; Challenging those myths are not about hating America but, quite the contrary, helping our students learn how to build a stronger and more durable America for the future. Historians are debating “The 1619 Project” vigorously, challenging some of its premises, adding to the volume of knowledge about that era in our history. All of this is important; none of it should be repressed. We are on a journey of learning together about why and how this nation came to be what it is today, and what that history teaches us for the future. Repressing the truth of our history serves no useful purpose except to prolong the errors, misjudgments, corrupt policies and evil actions that those who would repress those facts don’t want future generations to study.

Our job as higher educators is to teach our students how to discern among many ideas and forms of expression what is good and true, what is false and corrupt, what they may agree with or disagree with. Further, our job is to teach our students how to respond to the expression of ideas both good and bad; how to champion the ideas they favor and wish to hold up for public acclaim; how to rebut, debate and argue against those ideas that repel them; How to expose the lies and falsehoods and dangers that lurk just underneath many ideas expressed in the public square—often the very ideas expressed by political leaders who are also seeking to repress other expressions.

It’s high time for higher education—are you listening, brother and sister university presidents?—to stand up for the values ​​of free speech and expression that are the bedrock of our democracy. Academic freedom, itself—the freedom of faculty to teach and research as they see fit—is in the gravest danger we’ve seen in decades. Let’s show our students exactly what it means to stand up and be counted for what matters most to our society, our freedom to teach, to learn, to think, to write, to live free from fear of government repression. Through the power of our own example, let’s show our students how to stop being afraid for speaking out, how to embrace criticism as evidence that you said something actually quite important, how to look less for comfort and more for courage in confronting the most urgent issues we face as a people who say we love freedom. Do we? The test is here. Let’s cancel the idea of ​​“cancel culture” and restore the healthy, loud and vigorous expression of our values ​​every day on every campus.

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