We have all heard stories of university administrators suppressing free speech. But free expression suffers even without these enablers, and that should worry us.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Emma Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia, made a strong defense of free speech by describing her own practice of self-censorship on campus. In doing so, she exposed the demise of the culture of free speech, both in America as a whole and in a university with respectable free speech credentials.
It’s obvious that Camp values freedom of expression and welcomes a diversity of viewpoints. Fighting for changes, she is also ready to face some consequences of her speech. Yet you feel her pain when she admits to being afraid to speak, and her disappointment when she admits to having often opted for the easy way out by remaining silent.
As an adult with opinions that are often very different from those of my personal and professional friends, I can relate. Sure, sometimes it’s good to be quiet about dissenting opinions, like at a Thanksgiving dinner or a birthday party with friends whose opinions vary widely. It’s not just the debate of ideas in life. However, such silence is a problem when one feels compelled to hide opinions, or even acknowledge them, in settings – like classrooms – that should encourage the search for truth by accommodating different viewpoints. .
But Camp’s editorial also touched me because my daughter is in her freshman year at UVA. As I read, I could hear my daughter’s account of her experience. I assumed that her sense of having to be quiet would pass when she met other students who, like her, were eager to have open conversations and exchange opinions. However, I now have to face the possibility that it might not be as easy as I had hoped.
This is concerning given AVU’s well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s top higher education institutions when it comes to respecting freedom of expression. In fact, in June 2021, the AVU Board of Directors formally endorsed a statement reaffirming its commitment to free speech and open inquiry. Additionally, for several consecutive years, UVA has been awarded the voice code “green light” rating by the prestigious and uncompromising Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
What UVA suffers from is not anti-free speech rules. Instead, it’s the loss of its culture of free speech – something that’s happening across America.
The destruction of this culture is subtle. This happens over time through comments that certain positions are too objectionable to state. After a lecture by Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University, on the COVID-19 pandemic, my daughter mentioned to her classmates right away that a vaccine was almost ready in January 2020, but that the regulatory ordeal was such that it took almost a year to get an emergency. approval. She was mocked as someone who gets her information from Facebook. She now knows how to refrain from conversations about COVID-19.
Alone, every mockery is benign. But when repeated broadly for everything from vaccine regulations to politics, gender or race – with some comments even treated as an equivalent of physical violence – many students will choose to keep the silence.
Some students fight back, of course. Camp is one of them. At Emory University, some attempted to form a pro-free speech alliance only to face opposition and rejection from the student government association — not university administrators — after some law students protested. complained that freedom of expression was “diverse” and “uncomfortable”.
I hope they don’t give up, because as free speech advocate David French tweeted, while “legal threats are more immediately dangerous to free speech than social shaming,” culture matters too. He adds that “a nation that turns its heart away from free speech will eventually change its laws.”
We are already seeing some of this happening, with other university administrators giving in to students and imposing new restrictions on speech or demanding a public apology from students for their “offensive speech”. In a few states, some Republican lawmakers are also trying to restrict discussions of race and gender at public universities.
How long do we think our First Amendment protections can last when a rising generation thinks this way? Not long, if those who believe in a liberal order don’t unite to exert counter pressure. At the very least, we need to stand up for those students who have the courage to stand up in this environment.
Véronique de Rugy is the George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy and Senior Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.