This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on March 30, 2018.
The Gallup-Knight Foundation recently completed its latest survey of college students nationwide. The results are less than encouraging.
On the one hand, the majority of students surveyed continue to believe that protecting free speech rights (56 percent) is extremely important, while 52 percent answer that promoting a diverse and inclusive society is also extremely important to American democracy. However, when students were asked to choose between the First Amendment and promotion diversity and inclusion, 53 percent picked diversity and inclusion, whereas 46 percent opted for the primacy of free speech.
What this latest survey demonstrates, first and foremost, is that fewer of our young people know—because fewer of our schools teach—that, without free speech for all, neither diversity nor inclusion, nor any other societal goal, can rest secure.
The speed with which young Americans’ civic literacy is declining is seen when we compare this year’s survey with that of 2016, when Gallup, the Knight Foundation, and the Newseum Institute conducted their first study of college students. In 2016, 78 percent of students said they favored an open learning environment that allows all types of speech over one that puts limits on offensive speech. Today, this support has dropped to 70 percent. In 2016, 22 percent of students favored limiting “offensive” speech. Today, that percentage has risen to 29 percent.
Moreover, although the majority of college students continue to view free-speech rights as “secure,” rather than “threatened,” this percentage too has dropped. In 2016, 73 percent of students said they believed freedom of speech is secure. Today, that percentage has fallen to 64 percent. In 2016, 81 percent of students answered that freedom of the press is secure. Today, that percentage has fallen to 60 percent. The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of assembly is, in the view of today’s students, the most imperiled civil liberty. In 2016, 66 percent of students deemed it secure. Today, that percentage has dropped to 57 percent.
The politically correct agenda ruling and ruining some American campuses is not lost on students. Far from it. Students are becoming increasingly of the opinion that their campus prevents people from speaking their minds. More students today (61 percent) than in 2016 (54 percent) agree that the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views for fear of others being offended. Although a majority of students (69 percent) believe political conservatives are able freely to voice their views on campus, many more (92 percent) said that political liberals are able to share their opinions freely.
Ninety percent of students surveyed say it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking. However, ten percent say violence is sometimes acceptable. And while a majority (62 percent) believe that shouting down speakers is never acceptable, 37 percent believe it is sometimes acceptable. For their failure to understand that the First Amendment protects “hate speech” equally with all other speech, do not blame the students. Blame those schools that fail to teach them basic American civics.
Equally alarming, sixty percent of students now believe that universities should “establish policies that restrict . . . wearing costumes that stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups” (think: Halloween parties!) Forty percent oppose such restrictions. Seventy percent believe that universities should restrict the expression of “political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.” Thirty percent oppose. These percentages are largely unchanged from 2016.
A growing number of students signal that they have gone some distance toward loving Big Brother. That is to say, they approve of the infantilizing and coddling increasingly enforced on campus. An overwhelming majority of students (87 percent) favor their university “providing safe spaces, or areas of campus students can go for support if they feel upset or threatened by things they see or hear.” A mere 13 percent oppose.
Similarly, a supermajority (83 percent) favor “establishing a free-speech zone, a designated area of campus in which protesting or distributing literature is permitted, usually with pre-approval” by the administration. Sixteen percent oppose.
Worse still, the survey finds that the “heckler’s veto,” though clearly unconstitutional, finds great favor among students, 69 percent of whom support “canceling planned speeches because of concerns about the possibility of violent protests.” Only 31 percent oppose this imposition of “Might makes Right.”
The decline in students’ understanding of the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment has been a long time in coming—going back to the 1960s’ campus protests and Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” which served then and continues to serve now as inspiration for some among the Campus Left in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
In “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse argues that free speech for all is actually “repressive” under capitalism’s framework of “inequality and power.” Free speech for all privileges those already in power, he argues. Free speech must therefore be replaced by “liberating tolerance.” What does this mean? Liberating tolerance would deny “toleration of speech and assembly” to those on the political right. At the same time, it would aggressively promote the speech rights of groups on the political left.
Marcuse is quick to assure us that, once inequality has been eliminated, “pure toleration,” or free speech for all, will be restored. A growing number of students apparently believe this.
To these students, I would merely ask: How often throughout world history has government—any government—returned to the people a right or power that it previously snatched from them?
The answer is, rarely, if ever. For this reason, I am less confident than today’s students that, somewhere down the road—when government has eliminated all injustices—government will then generously return free speech to all. I fear that freedom’s enemies will always find an additional reason that We the People are not yet fit to enjoy the rights promised us under the Constitution.
Marcuse’s “liberating tolerance” parallels Marx’s insistence on the need for the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a phrase he introduced in a series of articles named, “The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850.” This similarity makes sense, given Marcuse’s Marxist framework.
Marx’s defenders are quick to insist that, the word “dictatorship,” at the time Marx used it, “was not a synonym for despotism, tyranny, absolutism, or autocracy, and above all it was not counterposed to democracy.”
Tell that to those murdered under communist regimes. In the 1997 book, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, editor Stéphane Courtois writes: “Communist regimes turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government.” Courtois finds that the death toll under communism totals 94 million.
To this charge, Marx’s defenders respond that these genocidal regimes (most notably, China, which killed 65 million of its own, and the former Soviet Union, which decimated 20 million) were not practicing real communism.
When will we get real communism? Only after private property has been abolished, say the Marxists. How do we get private property abolished? According to Marcuse, only by denying “toleration of speech and assembly” to those on the political right.
In sum, we are being told, “You can have your free speech back once your society is just.”
When might that be? “When we tell you.”