As students and faculty begin to return to university campuses, we should anticipate an uptick in confrontations between those expressing provocatively controversial views, and those seeking to prevent the expression of such views on their campuses.
The provocatively controversial speech will come largely from the hard right, both from outsiders such as Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and Milo Yiannopoulos, as well as from students, and perhaps a few professors. The attempts to censure these views will come largely from the hard left, from some minority groups, and increasingly from outsiders, such as antifa (the shorthand name for antifascist activists).
The expected uptick will be the result of the increasing influence and power of extremist groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Charlottesville emboldened both the white supremacist groups that organized the initial protest march and the radical groups such as antifa that confronted the KKK, Nazis, and other racists. It was a win-win for violent extremists on both sides, and a loss for centrists who support both antiracism and freedom of speech, even for racist views.
There is little support for right-wing racist groups on most university campuses, but there is widespread support for hard-left groups that are intolerant of views they regard as unacceptable. And the definition of “unacceptable” now extends beyond deliberate provocations from hard-right extremists. For some campus censors unacceptable views now include opposition to race-based affirmative action, support for Israel, opposition to global free-market capitalism, demanding due process for students accused of sexual assault, and even defending the right of racists to speak on campus.
We have seen efforts – some successful, some not – to shut down Condoleezza Rice (former Bush administration secretary of state), Suzanne Venker (a critic of feminism), Bill Maher (a TV talk show comedian), Greg Lukianoff (the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), Nicholas and Erika Christakis (Yale faculty members), Michael Oren (former Israeli ambassador to the United States), Nir Barkat (mayor of Jerusalem), and other moderate speakers who do not fit the hard left’s definition of politically correct.
These and other efforts to prevent speakers from being heard took place at Rutgers, Williams, Berkeley, Yale, the University of California and at other elite universities. At Berkeley, antifa led a violent protest that resulted in $100,000 in property damage. At Middlebury College, there were physical injuries and threats. There were efforts to prevent me from advocating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at three universities.
There is no way of knowing precisely how widespread among students and faculty is this intolerance for “unacceptable” — which generally translates into “conservative” — views. What we do know is that even a relatively small number of vocal students can shut down speakers and even threaten to shut down universities. University administrators cannot ignore these censorial voices, especially if they claim to represent racial or gender minorities pitted against “white privilege.” There may even be a “silent majority” on many campuses, who oppose censorship, but those students are pressured into silence by fear of being labeled racist, sexist, homophobic, or Islamophobic.
The vocal opposition to this movement away from intellectual and ideological diversity comes primarily from outside the current student body and faculty – from alumni, from board members, from contributors, and from legislators. Some of this opposition is based on principled support for academic freedom, but some comes from conservatives who dislike the fact that it is their conservative views that are being censored. During the McCarthy era, it was precisely these groups that supported censorship of left-wing views.
There are far too many people — both on campus and off — who support “free speech for me and not for thee.” For them, freedom of speech is a self-serving tactic, not a neutral principle. Universities must resist such unprincipled partisanship. More importantly, resistance to the current left-wing intolerance must come primarily from liberals. It is too easy (and too self-serving) for conservatives to rail against censorship of conservative ideas, just as it is too easy (and too self-serving) for liberals to rail against racist provocateurs. All reasonable people should condemn both hard-right racism and hard-left censorship, but it is the special obligation of the centrist left to condemn hard-left censorship, just as it is the special obligation of the centrist right to condemn hard-right bigotry.
William F. Buckley showed the way in 1991, when he refused to defend fellow right-winger Pat Buchanan against the accusation that what he had said “amounted to anti-Semitism.” Buckley’s courageous statement led the conservative movement to distance itself from anti-Semites who claimed to be speaking in the name of conservatism.
Now we need equally courageous academics from the left to call out the intolerance of the censorial hard left that sometimes morphs into bigotry.
Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and author, most recently, of “Trumped up! How Criminalizing Politics Is Dangerous to Democracy.”