The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has released a new survey of nearly 1,500 faculty members at four-year colleges in the US. Ideologically The survey of college faculty is consistent with other polls and surveys in showing that over half of the faculty nationwide is afraid to speak freely in the current atmosphere of intolerance and orthodoxy. What is most striking about this and other surveys is that the number of conservatives on faculties is comparably very small. Yet, even liberal faculty now fear backlash for speaking freely in classes or on campus.
More than half of the faculty respondents (52%) indicated they are worried about losing their jobs or reputations over statements that could be misconstrued or attacked. Not surprising, that view is overwhelming among those identifying as conservative with 72% reported that they are “somewhat” or “very” worried. Yet, even 40% of liberal faculty also felt this way.
Polls and surveys show that this fear is now shared by both students and faculty, including a recent poll at MIT. Again, what is notable with this data is that only a small percentage (if any) of faculty self-identify as Republican or conservative. Yet, a significant percentage still fear speaking openly in their own classes or on campuses.
Cancel campaigns are now a common pattern in schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown. Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned).
This dangerous trend in academia is discussed in my law review article, Jonathan Turley, “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States”, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
We have seen how this can turn into a type of “heckler’s veto” where speeches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of protesters. The issue is not engaging in protests against such speakers, but to enter events for the purpose of preventing others from hearing such speakers. Universities create forums for the discussion of a diversity of opinions. Entering a classroom or event to prevent others from speaking is barring free speech. I would feel the same way about preventing such people from protesting outside such events. However, the concern is not with outdoor events where all groups can be as loud and cantankerous as their voices will bear. Both sides have free speech rights to express. The issue on campus is the entrance into halls, or classrooms to prevent others from hearing speakers or opposing viewpoints by disputing events.
This has been an issue of contention with some academics who believe that free speech includes the right to silence others. Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over the use of a heckler’s veto on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU official. Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.
We are seeing the result of such policies. This generation of administrators and professors have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on our campuses. There is a dwindling level of diversity on our faculties and a failing level of trust in free speech protections. It is the destruction of the very touchstone of higher education as a place for freedom of thought and expression. That tradition has been replaced by speech codes, compelled speech, and cancel campaigns.
Yet, it is not the actions of administrators that is most disgraceful but the silence of most faculty members as their colleagues are targeted and harassed. As these surveys show, the silent acquiescence has not given faculty more security or freedom to teach and speak. Through their silence, they are creating the very hostile environment that they now fear.
Reprinted with permission from JonathanTurley.org.