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Fighting for Free Speech

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

As a new academic year gets underway on many campuses, it’s a good time to ask: What’s the purpose of school? Is it education, or indoctrination?

More and more, sadly, it’s the latter. We like to think of our universities in picturesque terms -- bastions of open learning and scholarly debate where one pursues truth, no matter where the search may lead. But while this Norman Rockwell vision may have been an exaggeration in years past, today it’s sheer fantasy on many campuses.

Those who dare to air a view that flouts the politically correct line on hot-button topics such as race, marriage, and immigration are virtually taking their lives into their hands. They aren’t met with spirited disagreement. No, they’re shouted down. They’re threatened. They’re attacked, both verbally and physically, by shrieking mobs.

Debate is out. Denigration is in.

It’s not just the violent protests that have erupted at, say, the University of California at Berkeley over Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro that should concern us. It’s the growing list of speakers who are uninvited. It’s the professors who censor themselves to avoid the wrath of the PC thugs.

“Students are being silenced as well,” writes Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “What sometimes starts with ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ evolves into Oregon University establishing a ‘bias response team’ where students are encouraged to report anything that makes them uncomfortable, so that the university may start an investigation and attempt to ‘eliminate’ the controversial topic.”

With good reason does Jordan label this “Orwellian.”

The problem has grown so bad that last fall, John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, felt it necessary to write a letter to incoming freshmen -- a letter putting them on notice that the school was bucking the trend.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison wrote.

Imagine -- a major university reaffirming a commitment to academic freedom. But that’s the state of so-called “higher education” today when many colleges have become little more than outrageously overpriced daycare centers.

Small wonder that.

The real travesty is how ill-equipped these students will be to defend their beliefs once they’ve exited the warm confines of their protective bubbles. Steeped in these rabidly PC environments, they resemble not trained thinkers, but hothouse orchids unable to withstand the cold breeze of opposition.

This represents a complete inversion of the original purpose of a university. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote. The stifling, choking cloud of political correctness that envelops so many schools today, however, turns students not into independent, well-trained thinkers, but into sponges who mindlessly absorb whatever propaganda they’re fed.

And the ramifications of this state of affairs stretch beyond the university. Ultimately, they affect all of us. “When universities suppress speech, they not only damage freedom today, they establish and push norms harmful to democracy going forward,” writes Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “These restrictions may cause and exacerbate the political polarization that is so widely lamented in our society.” So if you’ve deplored the violent protests that have cropped up in the last month or so, know that our universities have played a role in fostering such intolerance.

Hats off, then, to Princeton professor Robbie George, and Harvard professor Cornel West, who recently put their differences aside to issue a helpful joint statement. “All of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views,” they write. “And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree.”

Let’s hope more college officials join those who have begun to question the Left’s death grip on academia -- and fight to restore free speech to our nation’s campuses.

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