Another Casualty of War—Free Speech at Colleges

From a Washington Post column by Farheed Zakaria headlined “Another casualty of war: Free speech on campus”:

Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel and Israel’s military actions in Gaza have unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the United States and Europe. Watching it all, I wonder: Does anyone believe in free speech anymore?

I have strongly condemned the attacks of Oct. 7. I think that those who praise Hamas in any way are blind to the reality that it has been the principal opponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. But the question to grapple with is how to handle views that either side finds deeply offensive. And of course, speech and assembly are not the same as physical intimidation and harassment, which prevent civil discourse.

Until very recently, most concerns about free speech on college campuses were related to conservative speakers — from Ben Shapiro to Condoleezza Rice — being protested or disinvited. Conservative state legislators introduced dozens of laws to protect campus free speech. In 2021, House Republicans started a Campus Free Speech Caucus to protect free expression and free association. In January 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said the “most important legislative issue” to get right in the next couple of years was the protection of controversial speech.

Not anymore. Late last month, DeSantis reversed course, directing Florida State University’s chancellor to close down campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. DeSantis accused the group of giving “material support to terrorism” — though, as far as I can tell, these groups have only organized protests and rallies. As GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has pointed out, courts have made clear that verbal support for extremist groups is very different — and constitutionally protected — from sending money, materiel or arms.

Other conservatives have tried to publicly identify and shame students belonging to groups that voiced support for Hamas. A hedge fund manager proposed circulating lists of these students to ensure that they don’t get jobs. Many donors have demanded that universities issue statements either condemning Hamas or supporting Israel, some even insisting that certain rallies and speakers be banned. Many college presidents issued follow-up statements when their original responses were not seen as sufficiently strong in their support of Israel or denunciation of Hamas.

This is a far cry from where universities used to be. In 1967, in the midst of the passions of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, a report by a University of Chicago committee chaired by the eminent legal scholar Harry Kalven eloquently argued that the mission of the university could not be fulfilled if the institution formally took positions on controversial political issues of the day:

“A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby,” it stated. “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”

The basic argument for free speech, espoused by the Kalven report, is that it is better to hear those you violently disagree with than to ban or silence them. That way, debate happens out in the open and points are matched with counterpoints. The alternative is to drive discourse into the shadows and gutters of political life where it festers, turns into conspiracy theories, and often erupts into violence.

Growing up in India, I read with wonder about the United States’ commitment to freedom of speech, which was so strong that in 1977 a court ruled that a group of Nazis should be allowed to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb. In the 1970s, the Harvard Crimson ran editorials praising Pol Pot’s takeover in Cambodia. I went to college in the early 1980s, an era in which it was not unusual to hear incendiary views on campus, from communist revolutionaries to the Nobel Prize-winning scientist William Shockley, who made crude arguments about the racial inferiority of Black people. In this century, I recall very few colleges making official statements about the Iraq War or even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

We are now in a different world. In recent years, the pressure on universities to take political positions has grown. A turning point might have been the murder of George Floyd, when many institutions decided to demonstrate their sensitivity and issue statements. Once they took a stand on one political issue, it is perfectly understandable that they have been asked to also condemn Hamas’s attack last month. But where will it end? A Pandora’s box has been opened. With every major political event, university administrators will have to decide whether to condemn or support it. Will they find some standard by which they can explain why they denounced one terrorist attack or human rights abuse but not another?

I’m not sure what it signifies that many of us find the embrace of free speech outlined in the Kalven report to be too cold in its neutrality. We want our institutions to endorse our own passions and points of view. But can they do that in a diverse society in which people disagree strongly on so much? I fear that far from bringing us together, the path we are on will further drive us apart.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post.

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