Muzzling Free Expression on Campus Causes Self-Censorship

by | Mar 29, 2023


Societies advance through the creation, expression, and evaluation of alternative ideas. Therefore, for almost a millennium, we have had universities where ideas and discoveries are born and different perspectives are debated in “marketplaces of ideas” or “learning communities.” Yet there has been a decline in rational, reasonable discourse on issues of the day on modern campuses. This has been demonstrated by numerous suppressions of speakers, including one recently—and most shockingly—at the Stanford Law School, where a federal judge, Stuart Kyle Duncan, was prevented from speaking by a student protest, aided and abetted by the law school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) dean.

The university’s own administration was helping to lead the suppression of speech and ideas. It is incidents like this one that have made members of university communities afraid to express themselves, fearing potential negative outcomes (e.g., insults, attacks on character, possible physical attack, or efforts to dismiss) from individuals opposed to their viewpoints. Hence, expressed viewpoint diversity is on a notable decline. We are moving at least partway in the direction of universities in 20th-century totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. And this movement has spread to the broader society.

Individuals are increasingly engaging in self-censorship—the consequences of using an inappropriate word become too costly, so we muzzle our expression. One recent example came courtesy of Whoopi Goldberg, who is hardly a paragon of reactionary anti-woke thinking. She recently was pressured into constituting a tiny fraction of one percent of the world’s population, live predominantly in Europe but are found throughout the world. Words that came into colloquial usage hundreds of years ago become verboten as decreed by a woke aristocracy increasingly funded by universities and supported by their DEI offices. As we economists say, “The cost of expressing an opinion outside the prevailing progressive academic mainstream has risen sharply.”

Let me offer the personal observation of an octogenarian whose higher education experiences span eight decades—from the 1950s as a young undergraduate through the 2020s as a professor. Throughout the first five of those decades, the last half of the 20th century, I felt that I could pretty much say what I wanted, protected most of the time by academic tenure. I sometimes was outspoken. In the 1980s, Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste attacked me publicly because, through op-ed writings, I promoted a voter referendum to roll back a massive income tax increase that Celeste advocated and the legislature approved. The president of my university was pressured by prominent politicians to fire me, but he appropriately said, “Professor Vedder has tenure, and, moreover, we believe in freedom of expression.”

I survived. However, if I had been born several decades later and the tax increase had taken place in, say, 2015 or 2020, would I have publicly spoken up? I doubt it. I would have censored myself, remaining quiet rather than writing op-eds opposing the governor. Why? Because I believe that the university administration very possibly would have joined politicians in condemning my behavior, perhaps even firing me. I likely would be further condemned by the faculty senate, and some DEI administrators might call a rally condemning my efforts to restrict taxation as hurtful to minorities and thus morally, if not legally, forbidden.

Although difficult to precisely quantify, I think the gap between the political perspective of university faculty and the general electorate has widened over time, mainly reflecting an increasingly progressive faculty orientation. The ivory tower has always been perceived as being a bit flakier and more leftist than the real world, but that difference now is huge. Today’s faculty are generally highly aware that they are, in effect, wards of the state, as their schools are dependent on governments not only for direct subsidies and research grants but also indirectly for funds from tuition fees artificially inflated over time by various federal student assistance programs.

Thus, colleges have been increasingly allied to progressive interests favoring governmental solutions to problems and denigrating private or market-derived ways of solving social issues. Moreover, within colleges and universities, the balance of power has shifted away from faculty, favoring non-academic administrators who are less imbued with the collegiate traditions of open and free inquiry embodied in such documents as the First Amendment or even the “Chicago Principles” (and related “Kalven Report”), which some prominent schools (e.g., Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, North Carolina, and Purdue) have explicitly adopted.

The recent case of Amy Wax, an eminent tenured University of Pennsylvania law professor, personifies why self-censorship is on the rise. In May, Penn will have a hearing that could lead to her dismissal. What is Professor Wax’s great alleged crime? Did she neglect teaching classes or verbally attack individual students? Is she extremely deficient in publication or research? No, Wax has won teaching awards and publishes frequently. She is being sanctioned for her expression of views in writings on issues like immigration or the advantages of traditional two-parent marriages. How can academics avoid the Wax nightmare? Keep your views to yourself—self-censor.

The move toward what Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg perceptively called “the all-administrative university” has been augmented by a pronounced increase in the power of the federal bureaucracy, especially the Department of Education. The balance of collegiate power has passed from a once largely dispassionate faculty highly respectful of First Amendment values and civil debate to a bureaucracy both within the universities and beyond that views its job, to borrow from a British royalty job description, as “defender of the Faith.” The “Faith” is the woke ideology prevalent in the academy, the media, and amongst many politicians. Dialogues are being replaced by ideologues.

Reducing fear of self-expression may be a positive effect of a surging national movement to suppress DEI initiatives in the universities and, perhaps, stop the excessive use of them in private business. Practices such as requiring employees to sign allegiance to diversity practices are inimical to free expression, and initiatives in many states—including large ones like Texas, Florida, and Ohio—to restrict or even outlaw DEI bureaucracies could end campus efforts to enforce viewpoint conformity. If, as I suspect, DEI becomes a political—and, thus, a potentially severe financial—liability for state universities, freedom of campus speech will likely eventually become rejuvenated, enhancing a vital intellectual life characterized by robust but civilized debate.

Reprinted with permission from Independent Institute.