The traditional belief that free speech and unfettered debate underpin a free society is wounded and dying among many in this country. This is particularly true among the students and faculties at the nation’s elite colleges and universities and within the ranks of the leftist “progressives” who dominate today’s Democratic Party. Those righteously convinced that they and they alone possess the truth and that all who oppose them are evil rather than simply wrong are in the saddle and working to consign everyone else to the outer darkness.
There have always been those on both the left and right who would shut down others with opposing viewpoints. Until recently, they lurked on the edges of the ideological spectrum, rebuffed by mainstream conservatives and liberals alike committed to the belief that free speech and open discussion — along with a willingness to tolerate the views of those with whom one disagree — are key to the survival of a free society. But that is changing.
In the mid-‘60s as a conservative activist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I was invited to debate our involvement in Vietnam with a popular campus leftist before an audience of something like 600 of our fellow students and faculty. I spoke first and when I was finished, my opponent took the microphone to raucous applause. He turned a hostile eye to me, declared that he wouldn’t dignify anything I had said with a response, but wanted to assure those present that “come the revolution,” I would be among the first lined up against a wall to be shot. That didn’t surprise me, as I knew him to be an angry extremist, but the standing ovation he received gave me pause.
That took place in what today must seem like the golden age of campus tolerance. Professor Donald Downs teaches at Madison and recently observed that free speech and tolerance are in far more trouble today on our campuses than they were back then. Things, he concludes in an article published by the Martin Center, are much worse than in the past. “Today’s suppression,” Mr. Downs writes, “differs from the previous era in three key respects: It is more passionate and aggressive; it is more student-initiated and driven; and it extends the reach of censorship more deeply into everyday campus life and the life of the mind.”
The problem today is that the radicals of the ‘60s, righteously convinced that their opponents must be silenced, have risen to positions of power and influence in the academy, the media and politics. I got to speak then; those with diverse views no longer get that right on our campuses, and increasingly within major parts of the larger society.
Speakers with whom those who dominate our universities disagree are driven away by angry mobs lest the unenlightened be influenced or tainted by what they have to say or the “microaggression” inherent in their very presence on campus. The chairman of the Democratic Party informs the faithful that there is no room for them in the party of their fathers and grandfathers if they harbor any politically incorrect moral qualms about abortion, and campaigns are waged against media pundits, corporate executives and even scientists who refuse to tow the politically correct party line.
Scientists who question “climate change” face career-ending attacks from the faithful followers of the sainted Al Gore because they don’t accept the fictional “consensus” used as a rhetorical gavel to silence them. Now the same kinds of attacks are being made on social scientists who suggest that contrary to what we are supposed to believe, there is empirical evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as voter fraud in this country.
At Wisconsin and elsewhere, however, legislators are beginning to demand that college and university administrators take action against those who would suppress dissent. Wisconsin State Rep. Jesse Kremer recently introduced the Wisconsin Campus Free Speech Act, patterned on model legislation developed by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, to protect free speech for all points of view on the state’s campuses. His bill has won the support of the Badger State’s Gov. Scott Walker, who summed up the case for action with the observation, “To me, a university should be precisely the spot where you have an open and free dialogue about all different positions. But the minute you shut down a speaker, no matter whether they are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between, I just think that’s wrong.”
It’s also dangerous if one is a believer in a free democratic society and an informed citizenry.
• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.