Who’s behind the free speech crisis on campus?

April 12, 2017

Dorian Bon reports on the biggest threat to free speech on campus--university administrations--and why we need to oppose restrictions on the right to dissent.

RIGHT-WING and liberal media outlets alike are awash with stories condemning student protesters for attacking freedom of speech.

Take, for instance, Robert Shibley, the vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who wrote in the Washington Post: "[T]he immediate crisis comes from one freedom's most ancient enemies: the angry mob."

Or there's New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller, who would have us believe that "the violent mob" which stopped former Breitbart News contributor Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the University of California (UC)-Berkeley is the main menace to free speech in America.

These rants in the mainstream press botch the facts of the stories they present, smearing thousands of mostly peaceful protesters as violent thugs, while disregarding the sincere debate on the left about how to confront the right on college campuses.

But that's not even the worst of their mistakes. Their more spectacular failure is in attributing the crisis of free speech in American universities to the behavior of students.

A new semester begins at the University of Washington

There is, indeed, a crisis of free speech today, one that is steadily eroding the rights of students, faculty and staff in thousands of institutions of higher learning all across the country. But the blame lies with university administrators and bosses, not the student activists they loathe.

On campus after campus, university administrations are systematically rolling back decades of hard-fought gains for free speech, threatening students with suspension and expulsion for speaking out and clamping down on their right to assemble and organize.

THERE ARE too many cases of this kind of brazen repression to cite in one article. A survey of some of the most recent examples reveals a bleak picture:

This February, administrators at Ohio University sent police to arrest 70 peaceful demonstrators for staging a peaceful sit-in to demand that their school become a sanctuary campus for immigrants. Damning videos show officers dragging away students for merely sitting and chanting together inside Baker University Center.

Students involved in another sit-in during the same month at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania now face academic probation and hefty fines.

A third sit-in at Eastern Michigan University left four students facing sanctions and threats of expulsion after students briefly occupied a campus building to voice their opposition to racist graffiti that had appeared the day prior.

At Loyola University in Chicago, three student activists faced threats of suspension for leading a demonstration and march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

And it's not just students receiving this kind of treatment. In fall 2015, Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) adjunct English professor Divya Nair was suspended for participating in a speak-out against police brutality and racism on the CCP campus.

Professors who advocate for Palestinian rights are familiar with such arbitrariness by their employers. In several high-profile cases, pro-Palestinian professors like Joseph Massad, Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita have been threatened or even fired for simply expressing their positions.

Indeed, there seems to be a special place in the hearts of university administrators for suppressing speech in defense of Palestinian rights. A coalition of student groups at UC-Irvine (UCI) staged a protest outside of a talk given by Israeli soldiers, only to be chastised directly by the UCI chancellor and threatened with discipline and suspension.

The advocacy group Palestine Legal, which is always busy defending student activists, has documented similar incidents at San Francisco State, Loyola University, Northeastern University and Florida Atlantic University.

SOME CAMPUS administrators find it preferable not just to persecute activists, but to prevent them from organizing in the first place. Fordham University in New York City recently refused to recognize the school chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine as an official student group, a status that student organizations need to gain the right to assemble on campus.

Loyola University, which is infamous for its anti-free speech policies, refuses to grant the Loyola Socialists, Students for Worker Justice, and Students for Reproductive Justice recognized group status.

To top it off, many campuses create a truly medieval environment to stop the dissemination of literature and flyers. Boston College administrators drew student anger when they banned Black Lives Matter flyers critiquing the school's failures to address racism on campus. And when administrators at the Baptist Cedarville University outside of Columbus, Ohio, disapproved of a new LGBTQ student publication, they unilaterally banned it.

Even Robert Shibley, the author of the Washington Post article quoted above, would have to admit the complicity of university administrations in creating this authoritarian atmosphere. His own organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has covered hundreds of cases of administrative repression, which makes his smears against student protesters doubly bizarre.

In fact, FIRE's attorneys recently began a campaign that socialists should support, which attempts to end the practice of university administrations establishing "free-speech zones" on campuses, outside of which protest or assembly are prohibited.

The first legal battle is playing out at Pierce College in Los Angeles, part of the Los Angeles Community College District, where a libertarian student was barred from distributing copies of the Constitution--not exactly radical literature--outside of the designated free-speech zone. FIRE estimates that one in six top U.S. colleges have such restrictive free-speech zones.

Anti-speech policies on campus are so draconian that even some right-wing students are caught up in the attack, though administrators tend to be significantly more hostile to left-wing activists.

At the University of South Florida, for example, a libertarian organization was refused club status because the administration deemed it too "similar" to a second conservative group. And at Hamline University in Minnesota, administrators suspended a student for merely writing a statement advocating for an open-carry gun policy on campus.

Tellingly, when left-wing students ask the administration to help them shut down the right, administrators use the opportunity to restrict all activists' rights. As Jose Camacho described at SW recently, administrators at the University of Texas at Austin responded to outcry over Nazi flyers which appeared on campus by limiting speech and assembly rights for all activists.

In the face of this overwhelming assault on student organizing, those on the left need to make urgent demands for full, universal free speech rights on campus. We have to demand that every student, instructor and staff member be granted the full right to express and disseminate their views, to assemble, to protest and to organize--free of any bureaucratic obstacles, and without exceptions.

HOW DID the restrictions on campus speech get to be this bad to begin with?

Although it may seem surprising, the right of students to freely express themselves is actually a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States. Before the radical student movement of the 1930s, only a small minority of university administrators held the view that students should be allowed to put forward their independent positions on campus.

This hostility to student speech was summed up by Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler in 1935, when he argued, "The phrase academic freedom has no meaning whatsoever. That phrase relates solely to freedom of thought and inquiry and freedom of teaching on the part of accomplished scholars."

Students struck, 2,000-strong, for free speech on Columbia's campus in 1932. Mass mobilizations and strikes against war and poverty involving over half of American college students, and led by Communist and socialist organizers, won the first concessions for the free speech rights of students during the Great Depression.

After a period of retreat in the 1940s and '50s, students once again sprang into action during the mass social movements against racism and war that raged throughout the 1960s until the mid-1970s. During this time, millions struck, protested and organized on campuses around the country.

The student upsurge of the 1960s, animated by the broader radicalization in U.S. society around it, began with the free speech struggle at the University of California-Berkeley, much as the 1930s movement started with a free speech fight at Columbia and City College in New York.

This isn't a coincidence. The fight for free speech preconditions all other fights, because without the fundamental right to self-expression and organization for students, any independent student initiative is impossible.

Since the end of the 1970s, university leaders have coordinated an offensive to restrict student speech once again. The not-so-distant memory of the disruptive mass student movement compels academic bosses and administrators to use every mechanism at their disposal to prevent and neutralize student dissent. This led directly to a litany of new rules, restrictions and codes of conduct--like "free-speech zones" and administrative approval for student literature--which effectively curtails student organizing and conditions it to the whims of administrators.

THESE CHANGES occurred in tandem with a broader transformation of higher education, orchestrated to better serve the interests of business and the U.S. state, while placing the cost of education increasingly on the backs of students and faculty.

Military officials, for example, so embattled by student antiwar organizers half a century ago, have come back to campus with a vengeance. As Nancy Welch describes in her article "Educating for austerity" in the International Socialist Review, spending by the Department of Defense in higher education increased from $356 million to $2.8 billion between 1970 and 2012.

Welch's research paints a portrait of an academy energetically doing the bidding of big business. Funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) instruction has ballooned at the expense of humanities and the arts. The Obama administration's "College Scorecard" program allowed for closer government control over school curricula to fit the needs of business owners for skilled labor. And at the state level, politicians like former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed to limit all state funding for universities to STEM programs.

Working conditions for professors have deteriorated during this period as well, leaving most faculty members in precarious positions. Today, 75 percent of U.S. professors work under "contingent" short-term, no-benefits contracts, compared to only 25 percent four decades ago. Half of these contingent professors work part-time.

Students, meanwhile, have seen tuition grow by a factor of 10 in the same time span, leading to an unprecedented situation of 40 million Americans with student loan debt.

Administrators have served as the shock troops organizing and coordinating these changes to the academy. Incredibly, they now outnumber faculty in American universities. University bosses have become enamored with their own wealth and power. Dozens of private university presidents, as well as five public university presidents, now make over $1 million annually.

THE TRANSFORMATION of the university into a neoliberal regime has intensified the crisis of free speech on campus.

Contingent professors are justifiably afraid to express themselves openly with very little job security and power to defend themselves from their employers. Students, saddled with debt, cannot afford to risk discipline or suspension when their hopes of financial security depend on getting their diplomas and finding employment. To top it off, campuses are now dominated by an army of administrators policing student and faculty activity.

This frightening state of affairs makes the effort by contingent faculty and graduate students to form labor unions an important struggle for adherents of free speech to support. The greater job security and control that unionization would bring to students, faculty and staff would go a long away toward protecting their right to free expression.

But beyond this, the combination of repression nationwide against students and the decades-long rollback of the gains of past struggles should compel us to make the fight for free speech a centerpiece of our activism on campus today.

To do so requires an understanding that universal free speech and expression is a fundamental right--one that we have to expand to be able to pursue any of the particular aims we want to fight for on campus. The more we demand and win the right for everyone on campus--regardless of their politics--to speak, publish, organize, assemble and protest as they wish, the more power and space we build for our side to push for our own politics of social justice and liberation.

In addition to opposing campus administrations and regulations that seek to curtail speech, this will also require winning arguments with others on the left who sometimes buy into the notion that protesting injustice requires limiting free speech at an institutional level (at least the speech of those on the right)--and call for actions like banning racists and sexists from speaking on campus, for example.

But endorsing limits on free speech destroys the left's capacity to fight--because such regulations are invariably used against our side. Instead, building the left and advancing our causes necessitates a dramatic expansion of civil liberties, including speech--and organizing to mobilize to confront and protest racists, sexists and others on the right in an open and confident manner, with the largest forces possible.

During the first student movement in the U.S. in the 1930s, socialist students led the struggle for free speech on campus and became so associated with this principle that the general student body drew a conscious connection between socialism and free expression.

The struggle for the "open forum" on UC campuses in 1934 bears this out. As Robert Cohen points out in his book When the Old Left Was Young, communist students with the National Student League led the fight to allow freedom of assembly--known as the "open forum"--for all students anywhere and anytime on UC campuses. UCLA Provost Ernest Moore accused any student who advocated for the open forum of being a communist.

At a mass rally on UCLA's campus, one student responding to Moore quipped, "If you are for free speech, you are a communist too."

Student activists in today's age of "free-speech zones" and administrative repression need to take up this strategy. We should aim to make our struggles synonymous with the demand for the right to full free expression and assembly on campus--and beyond. Winning that right will require struggle--and we can't rely on anyone to build that but ourselves.

Further Reading

From the archives