David French, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, said he remembered when he was in law school at Harvard University how political correctness was taking over college campuses.
“It was vicious. It was every bit as bad at Harvard Law School from ‘91 to ‘94 as what you see today,” said French responding to a question of how political correctness has changed. “But it was much more back then confined to a select few campuses. It was not as widespread.”
In addition to being a writer at National Review, French is a past president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a veteran of the Iraq War. French will be speaking in Green Bay Wednesday evening on the threats to the First Amendment on college campuses. the event is being hosted by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
“The movement that began in the elite institutions has now metastasized and has now spread to higher education more broadly and spread to corporate America as well,” said French. “And to large chunks of the federal government as well.”
French said that it was his Harvard experience that made him concerned about the problem of protecting free speech on college campuses because he saw with his own eyes what was happening.
“I knew then as well that the people I was in school with were going to be the future leaders of the United States of America,” French said. “I was in the class right after Barack Obama graduated and then the next class after mine featured Ted Cruz.”
French said that because Harvard was teaching the future leaders of America at the highest level, the campus left wing’s behavior of shutting down speech they don’t like was going to be a problem in society. He said it was at that time during the early 1990s that universities began adopting speech codes across the country.
“There was an emerging free speech issue even then,” said French.
The issue of free speech being at risk is now becoming an issue in the culture at large. “What I think we need to worry about is that it has broken out so far beyond higher education,” French said. “Higher education is only part of the discussion now.”
French also said that is it isn’t just the kids coming out of college that are skeptical of our First Amendment rights, it’s the kids are already going into college lacking respect for our free speech rights.
“This is a very serious issue now culture-wide,” French said, “And fixing higher education is one part of it.”
The law is also beginning to be affected by this desire on the part of the left to shut down free speech. For example, the California Assembly has passed a bill that would prevent “conversion therapy. However, the bill would also target any speech to dissuade homosexuals from engaging in homosexual behavior. The bill is now awaiting action by the California Senate.
The problem of the lack of respect for free speech is also affecting the political right. “There is a danger,” French said. “Because what you’re seeing on the right is this temptation, this impulse and it’s even being phrased this way to fight fire with fire. ‘If they’re going to silence us when we have power, we’re going to silence them.”
French says that kind of “fight fire with fire” mentality does not intimidate the Left at all. It just causes everyone to double-down.
“It is disturbing to see this trend of what I call professor hunting,” French said. “Where conservatives will find some professor somewhere, you can always do it, willing to say something unbelievably outrageous. And then they sort of vent all of their anger and rage over the bias academy towards that person.”
French asks if conservatives claim those scalps, will it really make them feel better? “But it’s very destructive to the culture of free speech,” French said. “It’s the right’s own version of contributing to the name and shame culture that tries to intimidate people out of free expression.”
French gave as an example of this President Donald Trump’s efforts to shame NFL players protesting during the national anthem, which he says is just like the left’s efforts to put pressure on Hobby Lobby.
Meanwhile, some campus conservatives aren’t helping matters by trying to troll the left by having speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos come to their campuses just to provoke a reaction.
“So what we often see is conservatives sometimes trying to be intentionally offensive or even promoting voices that are not conservative,” French said. “Even promoting voices that are not conservative. Promoting voices that are vile and despicable in their own right in an effort to provoke a crisis. And I think that’s a fundamental moral and tactical mistake on the part of young conservatives.”
However, the campus left’s definition of “violence” is a damaging tactic to try to silence free speech. “Beyond that, the tactic is used to justify violence,” French said. “Because if speech is violent, and someone commits an act of violence, isn’t self-defense permissible? So what it does is rationalize actual violence.”
French said that just because someone’s pulse rises or they feel stress, it’s no more an act of violence than a close basketball game. However, French says, a shockingly high number of people believe that speech can be violence.
“And that high number of people who believe speech is violence will often act on it by trying to block speakers, by attacking speakers,” French said. “And that creates this atmosphere of lawlessness we have seen on multiple college campuses.”
Asked whether colleges need to be more welcoming to minorities by silencing speech that creates a hostile atmosphere on campuses, French said the idea of censorship leading to more tolerance is ahistorical.
“The fact of the matter is, in the United States of America as censorship has been beaten back by the Supreme Court, as the blessings of liberty have spread throughout the United States, the most dramatic and remarkable advance is in minority rights and minority representation in our nation’s history,” French said.
For much of our nation’s history, the protections did not apply to the states, according to French. It was only in the 20th century that freedom of speech was expanded to include the states.
“That’s when we begin to see very dramatic advances in minority rights,” French said. “Because that gave minorities and historically disadvantaged folks the ability to speak without fear of government censorship. Or with remedies if there was government censorship. So in an atmosphere of freedom, minority rights flourished.”
French also said that campuses that attempt to protect minority students through censorship are telling their students they are “too weak for freedom.”
“I think that is exactly the wrong message you want to send to anybody, much less minorities or members of disadvantaged groups,” French said. “Americans are not too weak to live with freedom, and you’re not doing anyone a favor when you’re teaching them they’re too weak to live in freedom.”