On April 13, the American Enterprise Institute uploaded a new episode of the “Factual Feminist” with Christina Hoff Sommers. In this installment, Sommers talks about campus free speech, specifically as it relates to her recent lecture at a law school during which she was shouted down by hecklers.
In the video, Sommers makes a salient point about our culture increasingly equating speech with violence. The full transcript of the video is below, followed by the video itself:
Is the campus free speech crisis a myth? Some say yes. They tell us not to be distracted by media stories about campus radicals shouting down speakers. “Look at the big picture,” they say. “Free speech is doing just fine.” Well, are they right?
...I was recently invited to Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon to give a lecture making the case for more openness on women's issues, such as the gender wage gap or the patriarchal rape culture. These need to be questioned and debated, not accepted as gospel. Women – everyone – are best served by truth, not slogans, much less myths. But I was drowned out by chants. “The wage gap is real!” “The campus rape culture is real!” My speech was disrupted. And a video of this disruption went viral and several news stories cited it as an example of growing intolerance on campus. That's when the pushback came.
Matthew Yglesias at Vox and political scientist Jeffrey Adam Sachs at The Washington Post assured everyone not to worry. “Support for free speech is stronger than ever,” they said, especially among college students. And as evidence, they pointed to one of the most trusted sources of data in the social sciences, the General Social Survey.
The GSS has been monitoring public attitudes on free speech since the 1970s, and it does suggest – just as Yglesias and Sachs say – that 18 to 34 year-olds are the most likely to support free speech – but the are two big problems. First of all, not all 18 to 34 year-olds are students. In fact, the GSS excludes those who live in "group quarters," i.e. dormitories. Moreover, the GSS measures support for free expression by asking people how they feel about speakers such as communists, homosexuals, atheists – but most of these involve issues that are just not that controversial today – not like they used to be. So what we need is a study that asks relevant questions to a cross-section of current college students. And fortunately, three recent surveys come close to the mark.
For example, the Gallup Knight Foundation survey looked at a random sample of 3,000 college students. It found that about 70% of students said they preferred the campus to be an open learning environment, where they could be exposed to offensive speech. 29% preferred a positive environment that prohibited certain speech. Well, Jeffrey A. Sachs cites this as further evidence that the kids are alright. Well, nearly 30% of students favoring censorship is not exactly cause to rejoice, especially when that figure is up from 22% two years ago.
But here's what is really most troubling to me. 37% of college students said it was acceptable to shout down speakers. I have been lecturing on college campuses for decades, and until recently, no one shouted at me or tried to disrupt the event. My colleague, Charles Murray, has faced noisy protesters in the past, but he says he could always count on someone in the audience to tell them, “Sit down and shut up. We want to hear what he has to say.” And the protesters, aware they were the minority, would just melt away.
But recently, at schools like Middlebury, Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, Evergreen State, Lewis & Clark, this censorious minority is not melting away. Well why not? I have noticed one striking change – an increasing number of college professors and students equate speech with violence. I first became aware of the conflation of speech with violence in 2015. An Oberlin professor explained in the campus newspaper that by questioning sexual assault statistics, I was attacking “victims' experiences and their ... reactions to those experiences.” Such skepticism, she said, is a form of discursive violence.
Well, the idea that words and arguments constitute violence is gaining currency. In a statement about my Lewis & Clark talk, protesters said that while free speech is an important tenet, freedom stops, they said, when it has violent impact on another individual. There will be no debate here. Well, there was no debate. It wasn't allowed.
The law students who disrupted my talk at Lewis & Clark were very much in the minority, and students who came to listen did tell them to keep quiet, but the protesters were confident and determined because I think in their minds, they were taking a brave and principled stance against violence. But speech is not violence – it's how we avoid violence. Speech is how we negotiate with one another in a pluralistic society. The distinction between words and deeds is foundational to American law; it's foundational to American democracy.
Surveys about what students think about free speech in general may not tell us much about the real state of tolerance on campus. We also need to understand how students think about speech, and whether they're captive to a worldview that equates it with violence. And we need to know how many administrators will tolerate their reign of error. Well, those who assure us that all is well on campus have yet to come to grips with this problem.