The real threats to free speech on campus

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is an excerpt:

…being at a state school is hardly a guarantee of tolerance. Teaching at a state university does widen the scope of what a professor can say without being fired. But ongoing student protests or unfavorable treatment from colleagues can make continued employment so unpleasant that a person simply decides to leave. In my experience, most professors aren’t in it for the money — rather, they love their work. Loving your work is a gift that can be taken away rather easily, regardless of whatever formal legal protections there may be.

Or consider the position of a student. You might have the legal right to start a pro-Trump group on campus. But you might be dissuaded from doing so if you fear your professors would respond by writing you mediocre letters of recommendation.

What really matters on campus is what the most obstreperous participants in these debates consider to be acceptable behavior and speech, and how far they will take their protests. These individuals are usually those with relatively little to lose from strident behavior, and perhaps some local status to gain. They may be students, or they may not; they can be student counselors, or faculty members, or even low-level university bureaucrats.

I explain in the piece why my own university, George Mason, has been strong in this regard.  And I am not crazy about the new proposed Trump executive order:

The relevant troublemakers are hardly ever university administrators. Yet they would inevitably become entangled in any tighter federal free-speech regulations. I have found such administrators to be pragmatic and able to see multiple sides of an issue, even if I do not always agree with their stances. Their primary goal is usually to get the rancor and protests to go away, so the business of the university can return to normal. Placing more constraints on their behavior could actually weaken their hand — by limiting their ability to mollify unruly student groups, for instance.

The full piece offers several additional arguments of note, so do read the whole thing.  Here is my conclusion:

I’m all for free speech, whether for public or private schools. But the fight has to be won in the hearts and minds of students and workers, not by the federal government.


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