I hate to interrupt a beloved narrative with some actual data, but:
But a brand new data analysis from Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project suggests that this “crisis” is more than a little overblown. There have been relatively few incidents of speech being squelched on college campuses, and there’s in fact limited evidence that conservatives are being unfairly targeted.
The Free Speech Project’s researchers have cataloged more than 90 incidents since 2016 that fit their criteria for a person’s free speech rights being threatened. Of those 90, about two-thirds took place on college campuses. These incidents range from a speaker being disinvited to a faculty member being fired over allegedly offensive comments to a student-run play being canceled over concerns it would offend.
The raw numbers here should already raise questions about the so-called political correctness epidemic. According to the Department of Education, there are 4,583 colleges and universities in the United States (including two- and four-year institutions). The fact that there were roughly only 60 incidents in the past two years suggests that free speech crises are extremely rare events and don’t define university life in the way that critics suggest.
And that’s not all. Most of they very small number of “free speech” incidents cited by conservatives are instigated by the same handful of trolls whose purpose is to provoke these reactions, not to communicate ideas:
“Most of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter ,” Sanford Ungar, the Free Speech Project’s director, writes. “In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.”
What Ungar is suggesting here is that the “campus free speech” crisis is somewhat manufactured. Conservative student groups invite speakers famous for offensive and racially charged speech — all of the above speakers fit that bill — in a deliberate attempt to provoke the campus left. In other words, they’re trolling. When students react by protesting or disrupting the event, the conservatives use it as proof that there’s real intolerance for conservative ideas.
And, even leaving that aside, people on the left are much more likely to be targeted:
The other key thing that emerges from the Georgetown data, according to Ungar, is that these protests and disruptions don’t just target the right. “Our data also include many incidents, generally less well-publicized, where lower-profile scholars, speakers, or students who could be considered to be on the left have been silenced or shut down,” he writes.
Examples include Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s commencement speech being canceled after receiving death threats for criticizing President Donald Trump and the president of Sonoma State University apologizing for allowing a black student to read a poem critical of police violence at commencement.
There’s little reason, according to Ungar, to conclude from any of this that conservative views are uniquely unwelcome on campus.
Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist at Canada’s Acadia University, put together a database of all incidents where a professor was dismissed for political speech in the United States between 2015 and 2017. Sachs’s results, published by the left-libertarian Niskanen Center, actually found that left-wing professors were more likely to be dismissed for their speech than conservative ones…
The pro-free speech Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a database of speaker disinvitations from campuses. It finds only a handful of disinvitations — somewhere between 20 and 42 — in every year between 2011 and 2017. The highest single-year spike, from 21 in 2015 to 42 in 2016, is mostly the work of one provocateur launching an intentionally inflammatory college tour.
“11 of the 42 disinvitations were for a single speaker: Breitbarteditor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos,” FIRE’s Alex Morey writes. “His controversial ‘Dangerous Faggot Tour’ traveled to colleges across the country this year and seemed to prompt a new report of attempted censorship in some form or another each week.”
The idea that there’s some kind of crisis of conservative speech being suppressed on college campuses is just a very successful propaganda campaign, hacks recycling the same few anecdotes again and again.
Speaking of which, it’s always worth remembering that Campus Free Speech Crusader (TM) Bari Weiss began her career as a public intellectual by trying to get professors fired for their political views. And while her efforts failed at Columbia, a similar campaign did succeed in getting Norman Finkelstein denied tenure for his political views at DePaul. The punchline is that guy who was most influential in ruining Finkelstein’s career got four stories produced by eight reporters at the New York Times to whine about how some people treated him differently at his exclusive vacation resort now that he’s become a professional shill for Donald Trump. It’s a farce all the way down.
This thread from Jacob Levy is excellent on the same point.