With so much of the daily news cycle focusing on civility — or lack thereof, in most cases — you don’t have to do much digging to see there’s a problem in much of America’s public life.
But while most of the recent coverage has to do with overt, sometimes violent, harassment of public officials or similarly vehement attempts to squelch speech on public university campuses, that’s not the only way civil discourse is currently under threat.
On campus at far too many public universities, a kinder, gentler way to silence dissenting points of view is in full effect. Rather than allowing itself to be caught flat-footed when a “controversial” (i.e., conservative) speaker arrives on campus, administrators craft and implement vague, ambiguous policies that allow them to preemptively muzzle both the message and the messenger.
Universities may argue that these policies are intended to prevent ugly situations like the one that occurred in 2017 at Middlebury College, but make no mistake: They’re every bit as damaging to public dialogue in the long run, since they deprive public university students from interacting with a different point of view. And they punish students that are simply trying to engage in civil dialogue rather than focusing on preventing other students from engaging in lawless and physically violent behavior.
That’s exactly what happened with Ben Shapiro at a 2017 event at the University of Minnesota. Invited to speak by a student group called Students for a Conservative Voice, Shapiro and his on-campus hosts informed university administrators of their plans five months in advance of the speaking engagement.
Hoping to involve as many classmates as possible, Students for a Conservative Voice reserved a centrally located auditorium at the university’s Minneapolis campus, a perfect venue to showcase a prominent conservative on a campus starved for ideological diversity.
But in the run-up to the event, university administrators stepped in. Citing their “Large Scale Events Policy,” administrators deemed Shapiro and his mainstream conservative viewpoints “controversial” and, therefore, too much of a security risk to honor the request from Students for a Conservative Voice.
Instead, administrators downgraded the event’s capacity (from over 1,000 to just over 400) and banished it from a central location at the Minneapolis campus to an isolated building in St. Paul. When the student group, which had been working alongside Young America’s Foundation to bring Shapiro to campus, reached out to administrators for clarification and reconsideration, they were told the Large Scale Events Policy allows the university to impose restrictions on select events at the university’s sole discretion.
But the policy does not answer the obvious questions like “How do we define controversial?” or “How big is a large-scale event?” but instead, rests all authority on the feelings and perceptions of a small group of university officials.
As a sort of cruel irony, the policies allow for a kind of embodiment of Shapiro’s worst nightmare: Feelings that don’t care about the facts.
Of course, the polite dismissal of dissenting viewpoints isn’t limited to one incident at the University of Minnesota. As director of the Center for Academic Freedom (part of Alliance Defending Freedom), I watch scenarios like this play out on an everyday basis.
But through our work, I’ve also had the privilege of seeing nearly 400 victories in support of campus free speech. As a result of our efforts, public university policies have been changed and their campuses reopened to all points of view — not just those favored by school administrators.
That’s why I’m hopeful as we start up the legal process on behalf of Shapiro, Students for a Conservative Voice, and Young America’s Foundation. I’m hopeful that, through cases like this, America’s public universities will correct their current course and recommit themselves to fostering the kind of diversity that can only come through wrestling with a wide spectrum of ideas, opinions, and perspectives.
"The cornerstone of higher education is the ability of students to participate in the 'marketplace of ideas' on campus," we write on the opening page of our lawsuit. "That marketplace depends on free and vigorous debate between students and the ability to offer diverse and competing views on current and age-old topics."
At its best, the public university campus is a vibrant marketplace of ideas, where tomorrow’s civic leaders learn not what to think, but how to think. But we can’t very well expect a college grad to grapple with complex issues — or engage in civil discourse — if they never have the chance to interact with the other side.
Again, university students are tomorrow’s leaders. There’s no upside to protecting these students from viewpoints and ideas they may not like. The more we try to censor ideas and speech on campus, whether overtly or through nebulous policies, the worse our public discourse is going to get.