Was ‘Free Speech Absolutism’ a Mistake in Higher Education?

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Students of New York University protest then president-elect Donald Trump in Manhattan, N.Y., November 16, 2016. (Bria Webb/Reuters)

The American Left used free speech to obtain a position of ideological domination in our colleges and universities — and now that they have that position, they’re turning against free speech in favor of controls over speech that doesn’t further their agenda. Should those of us on the other side of our great political divide learn something from that?

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In a recent book, Michael Knowles argues that conservatives should have fought the Left by suppressing their speech. The Martin Center’s Sumantra Maitra reviews his book here. 

Maitra writes, “Knowles is a conservative, in the original sense of the term. That means he cuts through the fantasy that has permeated ‘American conservatism’ (as opposed to their more power-friendly and reactionary Euro cousins) in the past forty years, namely, that humans are all fundamentally rational animals, and that everything can be solved by civil persuasion in the marketplace of ideas. It’s increasingly hard to square that worldview with the reality of the last four years, and Knowles’s book offers a mild reprimand while suggesting a few course corrections.”

According to Knowles, our effort at maintaining “value-neutral” universities was doomed to failure. American conservatives should have tried to keep out the destructive ideas of “progressivism,” deconstructionism, and all the other isms that today bedevil us. The responses by conservatives to leftist ideas have been “naive, feeble, and impotent,” he argues.

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So, what course of action does he prescribe? “In particular, we would need to restore prohibitions against obscenity, which politically correct radicals have long exploited to arouse the people’s base passions and undermine their liberty, just as the Founding Fathers feared,” Knowles writes.

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I haven’t read the book, but I doubt that such prohibitions would have done anything to stem the tide of bad ideas flowing into our universities. Also, I wonder what the U.S. would be like if a conservative  cabal had been in control since, say, the 1950s, using power to suppress speech that it found threatening. History teaches us that power is dangerous, no matter who wields it.

Knowles’s book opens (or re-opens) a debate that’s worth having, at least.

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