Is the Fight for College Free Speech Changing Hands?

This week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent essay by Newseum President Jeffrey Herbst and Chicago Statement coauthor Geoffrey R. Stone titled “The New Censorship on Campus.”

In the piece, they discuss the growing polarization around free speech, particularly the phenomenon of “progressive and minority students tending to condemn freedom of speech, and political conservatives suddenly waving the flag of free expression.” They find this polarization to be extremely troubling, especially for those who are sympathetic to the justice claims of students. The authors remind us that

It was not always this way. The civil-rights movement of the 1960s, for example, energetically embraced the principle of free speech. In April 1968 in Memphis, in the last speech he gave before he was murdered, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided a ringing endorsement of the central importance of the First Amendment for the civil-rights movement, when he declared that the freedom of speech is a central guarantee of “the greatness of America.”


In a similar vein, the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement were both made possible by the ability of courageous advocates for equality to challenge the accepted wisdom, to advance new ideas and understandings, and to shift the expectations and beliefs of countless Americans. Without a fierce commitment to freedom of speech, such progress would never have been possible.

Censorship Is a Two-Way Street

This same point has also been forcefully made recently by Jonathan Rauch. Students today should be careful, in other words, not to throw away their greatest advantage—the ability to make one’s case publicly and passionately without being silenced or censored. As the authors say,

It is…understandable that believers in creationism would want to silence supporters of Darwin in the 19th century, that supporters of the United States’ entry into World War I would want to silence critics of the war and the draft, that supporters of the belief that “a woman’s place is in the home” would want to silence supporters of the women’s-rights movement, and that supporters of the view that homosexuality is sinful and immoral would want to silence supporters of the gay-rights movement.


Wanting to censor those whose views one finds odious and offensive is understandable. Actually silencing them is dangerous, though, because censorship is a two-way street. It is an illusion for minority groups to believe that they can censor the speech of others today without having their own expression muzzled tomorrow.

The entire essay is well worth reading for the additional points it makes about the connections between censorship and weakness, on the one hand, and freedom and strength, on the other.