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The Death Agony of Free Speech in American Education
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The Death Agony of Free Speech in American Education

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Out of approximately 1,600 public educational institutions in the United States, as of March 2018 only 35 have adopted the “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” from the University of Chicago, known as the “Chicago free speech commitment.” In other words, amidst heightening controversies over political expression on campuses, only a fraction of America’s educational sphere has expressed symbolic commitment to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution even as vaguely defended as it is in the Chicago statement.

That the First Amendment right of free speech is increasingly put into question in the context of America’s crisis of education is of no doubt: 92% of polled American students say that “liberals” are free to express their views on campus, while only 69% of “conservatives” can, and this comes in parallel to a confounding contradiction - the majority of surveyed students believe that “diversity and inclusivity” in society are more important than “protecting free speech”, whereas, at the same time, 70% of students nominatively want an “open learning environment” even if such might include “offensive speech.”

These statistics reveal the conundrum of “free speech” in American education. First of all, it is crucial to recognize that the American political establishment and mainstream political discourse are not diverse or representative of the public. Whereas some countries’ parliaments and public spheres have representatives of altogether different political ideologies, the US has one - Liberalism - with two different wings - Democratic and Republican. While a greater variety of ideological permutations can indeed be found in the tiers of academia, this pertains mostly to strongly liberal-tinted variants of Marxism. The above-quoted statistics on liberal vs. conservative free speech opportunities are therefore extremely limited to begin with. If one considers the polling results that Americans are predominantly “socialists” and “libertarians”, then the unrepresentativeness of the American political domain is glaringly obvious. Yet, according to students’ opinions cited above, even this extremely limited political sphere’s competitors do not have equal opportunities on campuses. Secondly, that free speech is now a controversial issue in the very sphere in which ideas are meant to be discussed freely with the aim of educating future generations of Americans, is a dangerous development which threatens to castrate the role of America’s already crisis-ridden schools.

A trip down memory lane will help to put the situation of free speech, political expression, and American education in perspective. The Chicago statement claims to trace its origins to back when the Communist Party’s William Z. Foster was invited to lecture at the University of Chicago in 1932, which was met with a fury of hysteria, protests, and attempted obstructions. The university president on this occasion defended open discussion as the bedrock of higher education, setting a precedent that has been severely put to the test in recent time. The University of California-Berkeley, Claremont, California State University, and Middlebury College riots, which on social media have been christened “battles”, are daunting examples. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has drawn up a list of the “10 worst colleges for free speech in 2018”, among which figure some of the US’ top universities.

Over the past three years, American campuses have been rocked with violent clashes over the invitation of speakers from the so-called “Alternative Right.” In my opinion, the “Alt-Right” is not a coherent political movement, much less one that can be classified according to the outmoded left-right dichotomy. It bears remembrance that the “Alt-Right” appeared everywhere only after Hillary Clinton forged this construct as a referential counterpoint for her presidential campaign in an August 2016 speech. Rather, the Alt-Right might better be understood in its American context as a symptom of ethnosociological dilemmas in the US and as an amorphous reaction to socio-cultural engineering processes which has generally tried to make its subject “white America” or “European Americans.” That the invitation of this trend’s representatives has yielded such violence, that its supporters have been subject to and themselves perpetrated systematic harassment, and that the very idea of discourse on US ethnosociology has been deemed “Nazi” or “fascist” and up for open season - these are symptoms of the sheer depth of the crisis of American political discourse.

And this crisis is taking place in America’s education system. In line with the neo-liberal exploitation of the US education system, when “free speech” is “upheld”, it is often instrumentalized as a “marketing ploy” to profit off of hysteria. Meanwhile, the share of schools with ‘severely restrictive’ speech codes remains at 40%, while FIRE claims that 90% still have codes which are potentially restrictive. While this number has been declining from a long-term perspective, incidents of harassment and physical violence over cultural and political controversies have only multiplied on campuses. Multiple universities have disastrously instated so-called “safe spaces” where opposing opinions on political and cultural issues are de facto deemed “harassment.” “Free speech zones” have also been created, but in some cases boast no more than a parking space. The infamous liberal think tank, Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed what are essentially action plans for confronting Alt-Right presences on campuses, and at the same time, “leftist violence” has been denounced in mainstream American media as a growing trend. The situation is so intense that talk of a “Second American Civil War” was featured by The Washington Times and this “slogan” has trended on social media.

Judging by these indices, American society appears to be in an increasingly intense “culture war” in which free speech in American education is now a controversial “freedom from”, not “freedom for” discussions that are crucial to socio-political life. Gallup’s 2016 study also revealed that 69% of college students “have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly” and that only 16% believe that “Americans do a good job of seeking out and listening to different views.” What’s more, not only were students to be found more optimistic than US adults in general, but views on free speech were also found to vary considerably across racial and ethnic lines, thus reflecting deeper divisions in American society.

The notion of freedom of speech is one of the nominative bedrocks of the American political system and Liberal ideology as a whole, and education is one of the means through which the US’ citizens are supposed to be equipped with the ideas, goals, consciences, and platforms to freely express themselves in a manner constructive to American society. The two are theoretically and practically inseparable. As things stand, the Trump Administration, Congress, and universities themselves are locked in a debate over educational reform which could address free speech controversies, but there appears to be no break to this impasse in political discourse and policy-formulation.

As such, the crisis of freedom of speech on American campuses is part and parcel of the larger crisis of American society which has a microcosm in education. As long as topics that oppose or fall outside of the scope of mainstream liberal ideology continue to be repressed and inflated into nationwide controversies, the American political sphere will only become more unrepresentative of and rejected by a growing majority of Americans. The US’ education system might become a frontline victim in this “civil war.”

Author: Jafe Arnold