The weakness of a recent report on free speech by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni - 2018-05-31
Recent controversies over free speech on America's college and university campuses have inspired various organizations to propose policy changes for the consideration of college administrators. A report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, "Building a Culture of Free Expression on the American College Campus: Challenges and Solutions," cheapens the argument for freedom of expression by appealing to politically fueled stereotypes of faculty members and administrators. In attacking what it sees as the excess of political correctness, it defends free expression on campuses for weak reasons.
Authored by law professor Joyce Lee Malcolm of George Mason University, the report is part of ACTA's Perspectives on Higher Education. Malcolm relies heavily on a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, called "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2017," which claims that 423 of the country's top 450 colleges and universities have "policies that threaten free speech on campus." Included in FIRE's tally are institutions that ban "verbal abuse" and those that ban "posters promoting alcohol consumption," as those policies "could be interpreted to suppress protected speech." Reasonable minds may question whether colleges and universities have gone too far in chilling free speech in the name of welcome and inclusion. But it is imbalanced sensationalism to lump colleges and universities that campaign against the scourge of excessive alcohol consumption with those banning speech because it's offensive to some students.
The report goes on with the predictable criticism of campuses that create safe spaces and speech codes as antithetical to free speech. ACTA makes the perplexing argument that "these ostensibly progressive measures are, in actuality, chilling free speech and frustrating the open dialog that is essential to academic freedom on campus." As with most criticism of safe spaces, the report fails to define the safe spaces it is concerned about. Colleges are traditionally full of safe spaces where like-minded people gather -- think faculty lounges and locker rooms as well as culture houses. Why do safe spaces only come under fire from groups like ACTA when they are spaces for people who disagree with controversial speakers or when they are spaces for underrepresented students to gather to support each other?