Alumni Are Fighting for Free Speech on Campus
Colleges and universities are still bastions of speech suppression, but a loose network of grassroots alumni is fighting back.
In his 2014 book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, First Amendment lawyer Greg Lukianoff lays out, in exhaustive detail, the deep disservice being done to our young people by the stifling of speech and free expression.
“For over a generation,” he writes, “censorship at America’s colleges and universities [has] taught students the wrong lessons about living in a free society.” Higher ed, he says, “fails to teach students to become critical thinkers by stifling open debate,” while at the same time “supercharging ideological divisions, promoting groupthink, and encouraging an unscholarly certainty about complex issues.”
It might not appear that the campus climate has improved in the seven years since Lukianoff published Unlearning Liberty, but it has. Today, there’s a far greater awareness of colleges and universities as speech suppressors, and there’s a growing network of organizations now committed to exposing and rooting out this censorship. One of those organizations, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is a free-speech nonprofit headed by Lukianoff himself. Since 1999, FIRE has defended the fundamental rights of students and faculty through education, outreach, reform, and, yes, lawsuits in four distinct areas: freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality.
But while FIRE is a large, nationwide organization with a considerable legal apparatus, others are smaller and more tightly focused. The Cornell Free Speech Alliance, for example, is one of about 20 alumni organizations that have taken root on college campuses in recent years to improve the free-speech climate through another important and effective avenue: alumni donations.
As Douglas Belkin writes in The Wall Street Journal:
Many of the groups are driven by politically moderate or conservative men who graduated from college in the late 1960s and 1970s. … They believe progressive groupthink has taken over college campuses, and are urging schools to protect free speech and encourage a diverse set of views. In some cases, alumni are withholding donations to pressure schools to take them seriously. “This is a battle for our culture and, in many ways, for Western civilization,” said John Craig, who heads a similar organization at Davidson College in North Carolina called Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse. “Open and free expression is what makes our country great, and if we lose this, our country is in deep trouble.”
Just how oppressive is the university environment when it comes to free expression? More than 80% of students said they self-censor at least some of the time on campus, according to a recent survey by RealClearEducation, College Pulse, and FIRE, which covered more than 37,000 students enrolled at 159 colleges.
Davidson President Carol Quillen, in an effort to excuse the oppressive climate on today’s campuses, says: “Students carefully calibrate their remarks because people from so many more backgrounds and beliefs are listening. A little intellectual humility is not a bad thing.”
Our Mark Alexander, who knows a thing or two about college campuses and the influence they have over our children and our household budgets, counters that there’s a far greater need for intellectual humility on behalf of university faculty. The problem, he says, isn’t that students are walking around campus calling people by ethnic slurs. False flags such as these are the standard fare of the speech-suppressing fascist left.
Many of today’s leading universities have built up massive endowments, but alumni donations are still a significant avenue of influence. As Belkin writes, “Colleges and universities raised nearly $50 billion last year from outside sources, and more than $11 billion came from alumni.” Collectively, then, alumni donations are a lot more than a mere gnat on an elephant’s hind end.
So the battle is ongoing, but the fight for free speech on campus seems to be ascendant.
The great economist Thomas Sowell was fond of saying that nothing gets the attention of fundraisers like the sound of pocketbooks snapping shut. Here’s hoping that these grassroots free-speech organizations continue to sprout and continue to exert their influence over the speech suppressors on our nation’s colleges and universities.
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