The National Association of Scholars (NAS) issued a statement on April 22—before Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act—that calls for federal action to protect freedom of speech on college campuses. In a press release, Robert Paquette, President of The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and Professor Emeritus of History, Hamilton College, has announced his strong endorsement of the NAS statement.
“No person seriously interested in maintaining the quality of higher education in the United States,” said Paquette, “can remain indifferent to the thuggery, often dressed up in the name of social justice, that is undermining the very foundation of liberal education. It is not just the threats and physical attacks by campus activists against speakers, particularly conservative speakers, which are chronicled now almost daily in the newspapers, that should cause concern, but the allocation of staggering resources to campus elements—faculty, students, and administrators—whose fashionable biases and inanities have yielded a climate that forces many students to self-censor in order to survive. At many elite institutions that means paying more than $70,000 per year to tow a party line.”
The NAS statement urges Congress to cut off federal student aid to public universities whose administrations fail to protect freedom of speech. NAS asks that the Higher Education Act—which governs Washington’s relationship with colleges and universities—be amended to include such a provision.
“Public institutions with restrictive speech zones and speech codes, discriminatory treatment of religious student groups, and other policies and practices that violate the First Amendment must,” the statement says, “be stripped of eligibility for federal student loans and grants.”
Furthermore, “private colleges should make all speech and association policies transparent and open to the public, as a condition of eligibility for [federal student] loans and grants.” An especially important reason is that students “should be fully informed about private institutions’ speech climates before they choose to enroll.”
Indeed, the current Higher Education Act already contains a provision that expresses a sense of the Congress on this issue. Thus, institutions with federal student loan and grant eligibility “should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas,” and “students should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against” due to their expressed views. Since the Act provides no means of enforcing this laudable goal, it proves easy to ignore.
In a climate of cowardice and inaction on college campuses regarding students’ and professors’ freedom of speech, the more than 200 signers of the NAS statement believe it is time for legal enforcement—not just wishful thinking or empty complaint.
“In the last two years,” the statement points out, “there have been nearly fifty attempts to disinvite speakers from college campuses. More than 120 colleges and universities have speech codes that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech … Coupled with bias response teams, trigger warnings, and safe spaces, these policies teach students to obey the doctrines of political correctness, rather than to search boldly for the truth.”
In addition, it’s important for friends of campus freedom of speech to understand that President Trump’s recent executive order aimed at protecting freedom of speech on college campuses affects only federal research dollars—and many institutions of higher education have little or no federally funded research. An executive order, unlike legislation, can simply be undone by a later president.
Another reason for urgency are data that suggest students with unpopular views on campus are now surrounded by a large number of classmates—not just a small body of vocal “activists”—who either do not mind persecuting unpopular views or remain silent when professors or administrators move to suppress unpopular views or remove them entirely from classroom discussion. A 2017 poll, for example, asked students about this scenario:
“A public university invites a very controversial speaker to an on-campus event. The speaker is known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” A student group “disrupts the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker.” In the poll results, 51 percent of students said such actions were “acceptable.” And 19 percent considered it acceptable if the group uses “violence to prevent the speaker from speaking.”
The NAS statement is a significant step toward improving campus climate because it is easy for Americans interested in the state of our colleges and universities to emphasize only the overspending and rising costs of higher education—not the attendant decline in freedom of speech, which strikes at the very means by which a true liberal education is pursued.
As the NAS statement eloquently notes:
“Members of both parties have expressed concerns that college is too expensive, and much of the discussion around the reauthorization of the [Higher Education Act] has focused on reforming federal student aid. But without intellectual freedom, college is not a good investment. It is an empty forge and a cold furnace, where ideas are left to rust. Other reforms may bring the cost of college down, but we must better protect free inquiry in order to bring the quality of college up.”
Are more criticism and the fear of losing a few customers who will not accept the discriminatory treatment of their children possible solutions to the free-speech crisis? Not by themselves. Concerns that parents of current and future college students may express, inquiries or even tough questions by donors, and competition from schools that take free speech and intellectual diversity more seriously are all good things. They may help. But they are not enough on their own to make higher education’s ruling class feel the heat.
In a recent essay supporting stronger action, Stanley Kurtz explains:
“Campuses are insulated from market forces by tenure and massive federal subsidies. Abuse of the tenure system has created an unbreakable intellectual monopoly on campus, and this has cemented the speech police in place. In the absence of outside intervention, nothing is going to change.”
In the interest of fostering a truly liberal education, Paquette and other signatories to the NAS statement urge Congress to pass legislation that puts the academic establishment on notice, that its inaction in dealing with substantive threats to freedom of speech on campus will entail a very steep price.