This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on April 30, 2017.
Do you think that you can count on university leaders to uphold the First Amendment on their campuses?
If so, think again.
I thought that I was being pranked when I received an email notifying me of a New York Times op ed, published by NYU vice provost, Ulrich Baer, addressing the violent left-wing protests sweeping across America’s campuses. Baer assessed the Middlebury College protest of AEI scholar, Charles Murray, at which a protester grabbed the hair of a liberal female professor, Allison Stanger, sending her to the ER, from which she emerged with a neck brace. He also weighed in on the violent protests of Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, at which protesters hurled rocks and set fires, injuring at least six persons and causing $100,000 in property damage.
The NYU vice provost’s take on all this mayhem explains why I thought I had received “fake news.” He informs his New York Times’ readers that “the recent student demonstrations [he somehow neglects to mention the violence]. . . against Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others . . . should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship” (emphasis supplied).
Huh? Let me get this right: The violent suppression of invited campus speakers’ First Amendment rights—as well as of those who wanted to hear from them—is not “censorship,” but, instead, an effort to protect “the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Welcome to the Orwellian world of American higher education. Recall that in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, two of the slogans of the English Socialist Party ("INGSOC") of Oceania were, “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” According to this NYU administrator, freedom of speech for all is, in fact, slavery for some. Moreover, studied ignorance of the arguments advanced by those violently suppressed contributes to the strength of society, or, as the vice provost states it, to the “common, public good.”
Silly me: I had thought that freedom of speech for all was indispensable to the goal of extending the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equal rights to all. How did I miss the change?
Baer answers my question. I—and you—“overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred.” You see, we First Amendment defenders “fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.”
What he means here is that postmodern “philosophical work” gives greater weight than was accorded in the past to personal experience, especially when that experience has been “traumatic.”
With this rise in the place of feelings relative to rational argument, some topics, he argues, have now become “unmentionable and undebatable.” Which topics, precisely? He answers, “Claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.”
Is NYU Vice Provost Baer arguing that no pro-abortion-rights activists, for example, should be allowed to speak on campus, because they regard the unborn as “unworthy of legal standing”? No, he has other causes in mind, which he has decided for us are “undebatable” (which means that he has decided for us that the First Amendment doesn’t really mean what it clearly says in their cases).
Regarding speech that “invalidate[s] the humanity of some people,” he argues, “there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.” Where, then, should those students go who feel “insufficiently exposed to controversial views”? His answer: “[T]he internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered.”
As an aside, I cannot help but wonder why an NYU administrator would offer the internet as a finishing school that is required for one to receive a full education. Have not the defenders of the higher-education status quo been gnashing their teeth over their loss of market-share to online education? This attempt to push free speech away—anywhere, even to the internet!—speaks volumes about the sheer desperation with which he and others in the Academy greet the prospect of students engaging in real debate over controversial issues. (One can even imagine online colleges quoting his op ed in their ads.)
What, precisely, does Baer find so frightening about upholding the First Amendment for all? He tells us: “What is under severe attack, in the name of an absolute notion of free speech, are the rights, both legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse.”
Now, I’m all for protecting the rights of minorities to participate in public discourse—that’s why I support the First Amendment, which protects free speech for all. But, according to Baer, supporting free speech for all disenfranchises minorities. Somehow, minorities are not included in “all.” Somehow, minority rights can be protected only by restricting the First Amendment, which the Supreme Court announced long ago to be a “fundamental freedom,” meaning, that without free speech, we lose our capacity for self-government.
Baer’s essay is but the latest example of a truth I learned from long experience as a college professor and senior administrator: Universities cannot be reformed from within. Why? Because the intellectual and moral rot justifying anti-intellectualism is too deeply entrenched in the Academy. It is, in fact, quickly becoming among its chief reasons for being. Thanks to defenses such as Baer’s, our campuses are in danger of becoming the least tolerant places in America.
It is only toward the end of his piece that Baer reveals a deeper agenda. This emerges from the praise he offers to the campus protesters, who “sensed, a good year before the election of President Trump, that insults and direct threats could once again become sanctioned by the most powerful office in the land.” For “keeping watch over the soul of our republic,” he argues, “we should thank the student protestors, the activists in Black Lives Matter and other ‘overly sensitive’ souls.”
What does this mean? Simply stated, for Baer, Trump voters (apparently, all 62 million of you) need not apply for inclusion under the First Amendment on his campus. One need not be a Trump supporter, but merely a friend of intellectual and political liberty, to see in this the formula for the death of free and open debate on our campuses, as well as beyond them—when students indoctrinated in the new, anti-freedom orthodoxy go on to become senators, representatives, and judges.
But Baer appears unfazed by the enormity of his rationalization for censorship. Neither, he tells us, is he “overly worried that even the shrillest heckler’s vetoes will end free speech.”
Perhaps he would be less blithe were he to have witnessed Allison Stanger at the Emergency Room, where doctors treated the wounds inflicted by the Middlebury mobs’ “heckler’s veto.” Perhaps then, he would understand why the Constitution protects the free-speech rights of all—without discrimination.