“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words start the American Bill of Rights and, supposedly, guarantee the freedom of speech to American citizens. While this may sound nice, America’s immemorial commitment to free speech is a simply a myth.
In recent years, right-wing student groups and publications have portrayed themselves as the sole bastions of free speech against barbarous hordes of social justice warriors. It is undeniable that there exists a dearth of meaningless discourse on liberal campuses. Yet the right-wing cause of free speech has been dangerous and hypocritical; conservative students have championed the right to polemicize demagogically and thoughtlessly rather than to engage in impactful discussion. Most troublingly, the campus Right across America has enabled and legitimized a terrifying alt-right in their impulsive and self-righteous pursuit of free speech. It is high time for the Left to recapture the cause of free speech.
Universities across America are in a state of acute intellectual decay. Replacing a millenia-old tradition of discussion and debate, a stifling liberal consensus now dominates many campuses. Administrators often succumb to student pressure to disinvite unpopular speakers, while those few who do make it to campus are often shouted down or attacked. In response, some right-wing students have resorted to inviting speakers that are needlessly demagogic, making serious discussion even more difficult. Informed and civil debates are sadly rare on college campuses.
Yesterday, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell released a statement entitled ‘Advancing Free Speech and Inclusion.’ Their defence of free speech was balanced, thoughtful and incisive. Indeed, it is difficult to take exception to the idea that ‘Freedom of inquiry and the free expression of ideas are fundamental to the mission of the university.’ And more importantly, the statement recognizes that the university experience encompasses so much more than the classroom. As the President and Provost wrote, ‘our strength as a university derives from our diversity.’ This diversity cannot be limited to nationality, race and gender. It must also include political and experiential diversity, meaning right and left wing thought that lies outside the narrow bounds of the Stanford liberal consensus.
President Trump’s 2016 election victory must rank as one of the most significant and impressive political movements of the past half-century. This momentous election has so many diverse meanings; the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party in its current liberal, identity politics guise; the rise of the specter of white nationalism; the decline of American liberal democracy amidst the broader demise of the Western world order that has governed so autocratically for the past few centuries.