If universities do not take steps to address their campus free speech problems, politicians will do it for them
President Donald Trump’s proposed executive order on free speech in universities has once again turned a spotlight on the worries over campus free speech in the United States. There is substantial debate over just how extensive of a free speech problem college campuses actually have. Individual incidents of bad behavior on campus get extraordinary attention in the current political and media environment. There is little question that incidents such as the one Trump highlighted – a conservative activist getting punched in the face on the University of California at Berkeley campus – or myriad others – such as Charles Murray getting shouted down at Middlebury College or Heather MacDonald having her audience blocked from attending her speech at Claremont McKenna College – should be deeply disturbing and should be understood to be contrary to the values and mission of an American university. Unfortunately, there are students, faculty and administrators at many colleges who would fully endorse just such disruptive behavior.
What is much less clear is how widespread such incidents really are and whether they are becoming more common. In the age of social media and pocket cameras, nearly every incident has the potential to be recorded for posterity and broadcast far and wide, but even a decade ago such incidents could more easily fly under the radar. At the same time, the many more occasions on which Charles Murray and Heather MacDonald speak to a college audience without incident are easily overlooked. There is even some reason to hope that the campus speech situation is in fact improving compared to a couple of years ago, in part due to the work of organizations like FIRE and in part because the recent high-profile incidents were something of a wake-up call to many campus leaders who did not want their institution to become the next Middlebury or Evergreen State.