WASHINGTON (CN) – Free speech in higher education is under threat because a culture of censorship that caters to student outrage is spreading in favor of open engagement on unpopular or even discredited ideologies on campus, academics and Justice Department officials said at a forum held Monday.
The event, hosted by the Justice Department, featured opening remarks from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long criticized colleges and universities for allegedly inhibiting free speech.
The forum comes on the heels of a decision by the Education Department last week to reopen an investigation into alleged discrimination against Jewish students at Rutgers University.
Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said the department was reopening the seven-year old complaint which alleged a pro-Palestinian event held on the campus in January 2011 may have discriminated against Jewish students by charging them admission while allowing others in for free.
The organizers of the event denied that allegation, and the Education Department ultimately dismissed the case in 2014, saying the group’s claims were baseless.
But Marcus said the department has adopted a broader definition of anti-Semitism that includes criticisms of Israel and needs to take a closer look at what transpired at Rutgers.
This scenario and others like it contribute to a slippery slope towards censorship, the panelists agreed unanimously.
Rattling off a list of lawsuits against universities that the department has taken a “special interest” in, Sessions celebrated a recent victory against the University of Michigan which was challenged this past May for its definition of “bullying” and “harassment.”
Using air quotes around the words as he spoke, Sessions said the university sought to eliminate “harassment” and “bullying” and “bias.” The university’s rules didn’t give clear definitions to those terms or others, like “bothersome” or “hurtful.”
Instead a “group of campus bureaucrats and campus police with the Orwellian name of the Bias Response Team” were used to report and investigate claims of “bothersome” speech, he said.
Once the Justice Department filed a statement of interest however, the university changed its policies, Sessions said.
Though this is a victory, he explained, the overall “culture” in the country around free speech has “gone too far,” he added.
“It must end. This country protects noisome assembly, immoderate speech and provocative speech. Whether left or right. Suppression of competing voices is not the American way,” he said. “There are radicals out there now that have openly and systematically justified actions that would deny Americans the right to speak out against their ideological agenda. We must put an end to this nonsense. It is time to put a stake in its heart.”
John Gore, associate attorney general, emphasized Monday the department’s powers are limited, adding that while some may be skeptical of the division’s motives, the department’s involvement is “neither political nor partisan.”
Its involvement, he said, comes from a desire to protect the First Amendment’s “unyielding universality.”
“If it protects any ideology, it protects all ideologies,” Gore said.
The department also invited Heather Mac Donald, a conservative author and pundit, who grabbed headlines in May 2017 when she was barred from giving a speech at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Students protested her views, which they deemed racist, fascist and contrary to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Over 200 protestors blocked her entry to the campus and the school cancelled her event, citing safety concerns.
“Censorship is the natural result of today’s … ruthlessly competitive hierarchy of victimhood,” Mac Donald said Monday, slamming those that “silence speech by institutional fiat, shouting over a speaker or mob violence.”
Now exist signs, she said, of a “terrifying dissent into where brute power rules.”
“Campus silencers may currently monopolize power, but do they really want that power in the hands of their arch enemy, Donald Trump?” Mac Donald said, specifically referring to protests against the administration’s policies around minorities, progressives and women.
“As long as victimhood is the dominant narrative on college campuses, the movement to suppress those ideas will be overpowering,” she said.
Another panelist, Robert Shibley, executive director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, provided what he said were a “troubling” series of results from student polls.
A recent study by the organization found 53 percent of students polled said they would be afraid of retribution if they made a statement openly that was mistaken or incorrect; 48 percent said they feared being judged by their peers and 16 percent said they “self-censored” completely on campus because they felt a professor or student would report them for their speech.
When it came to campus protest, over 30 percent of conservative students said they shouldn’t have to be exposed to this expression of free speech; 17 percent of liberal students polled, agreed.
The day-long forum will continue with comments from keynote speaker and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union Nadine Strossen; deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who currently chairs the senate education committee chairman, and others.