Whither Free Speech?
Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein is Vice President of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive." Its web site is at www.focusonthefamily.com.
There is a growing awareness among Americans that religious freedom in our country has come under sustained pressures. In the public square where freedom of religion meets public policy, it becomes clearer all the time that there is a high price to be paid for being true to one's conscience. - Matthew J. Franck
The autumn arrives, and with it millions of Americans have flocked to college campuses for the new academic year. The leaves may be changing all around our beloved republic, but what seems to be unchanging - and in fact, is becoming tiresomely predictable - is a kind of new intolerance on campuses aimed at the expression of one's faith and free speech in general.
The ivy so long associated with some of our most beautiful colleges and universities is, increasingly, poisoned with speech zones and political correctness codes aimed at men and women of faith. Christians in particular are feeling this new intolerance's serrated edges, but such is the scope of the problem that its tentacles are putting a squeeze on our most basic and foundational liberties.
This has important ramifications for what it means to be a citizen of unchanging moral convictions in the realms of higher learning.
At Swarthmore in Pennsylvania earlier this year, a student expressed opposition to a pending speech by Princeton's Robert George, one of the few well-known and highly-regarded Christians and conservatives in the Ivy League. The student wrote:
What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.
Not to be outdone or outshone, the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, editorialized that academic freedom - once so highly and categorically guarded as the ideal of the protection of speech rights - should be replaced by something the editorialist called "academic justice" which to most readers of fair mind is defined as the abolition of other views and opinions. The writer targeted one of the only conservatives at Harvard, the longtime professor of government Harvey Mansfield. One of his colleagues called it "the closing of the collegiate mind." Just so.
But it is not only elite northeast campuses which are increasingly uncomfortable with free speech rights but also Midwestern, highly regarded institutions such as Oberlin College in Ohio, which was seriously considering (and wisely rejected) the use of something called "trigger warnings" for faculty preparing their students to read great literature.
The trigger warnings would read something like this: "Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression."
For those who have never heard of "cissexism" it means bias against people who are transgendered or "transsexual."
While those trigger warnings may seem odd and off the wall to those who spend little or no time on campuses, the spirit of what they represent are actually becoming standard operating procedure in the humanities and in the study of the great books. So-called "gender identification" has now deeply embedded itself in both the liberal arts and in the teaching of science and mathematics.
The writer Norman Podhoertz observes that college campuses are increasingly an "island of repression in a sea of freedom." That is not hyperbole or an exaggeration.
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, one professor explains:
Even the gender-defining community is having a hard time keeping up . . . the standard shorthand is LGBTQ (for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgendered, and Queer); at Bowdoin College in Maine, it's LGBTQUIA (adding Intersex and Asexual); while down the road at Bates College [also in Maine] it's LGBTIQQ (the second Q for Questioning).
The response to his comments from another professor only deepened this toxic and growing divide over speech. His colleague said those observations were "bordering on . . . hate speech" and that perhaps a censure should follow.
Quite apart from that incident, it is as if men and women of faith are now viewed as contemporary Bull Connors for articulating their most deeply held moral and religious principles - their consciences - in at atmosphere that is supposed to foster and not hinder dialogue, conversation, and the general exchange of ideas which might not always conform to the aggressively secular environment that has beset and bedeviled our citadels of higher education.
This culture of intolerance leaves one both semi-speechless and categorically transfixed. Orwellian might be the better term. Where does it all lead, and where will it all end? In Orwell's phrase, will we see the emergence of a "Ministry of Truth" to arbitrate what can and cannot be said or thought?
For Christians, it is not an exaggeration to say that, in the history of our beloved country, there has never been an era on campus more oppressive than now. The suppression of free speech is increasingly taken as a given.
The writer Herbert London is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of a marvelous book The Transformational Decade, in which he thinks deeply about free expression in this new century.
In a recent essay, he observed:
This is the time for an awakening that recognizes our strengths, the residual resilience that still exists in some quarters. And it is time to challenge the bold revolution that is now conventional wisdom with a counter-cultural revolution based on kindness, traditional principles, and a belief in a higher authority. It is asking for a lot, but then where is the present road we are on taking us?
That last question should be ringing in our ears, and it begs an even deeper one: Whither the fate and state of freedom in America?
If this rising generation of young men and women of faith will not contest the new intolerance that is being foisted upon them, and thereby take their place as a new counter-culture rooted in the hope and confidence of all that God teaches us about the common good and the healthy society, then what really is next for our country, culture, and civilization?
Can we remain a land of liberty if our God-given religious freedoms and speech rights are so categorically and routinely usurped and denied?
The good news is that hope is real, and that in the fullness of time, Providence provides a way forward for those seeking civilizational renewal, regeneration, and revival. The largest historical question is whether we will have the moral courage to stand athwart the civilizational slide we find ourselves in the midst of.
The time to enlighten young hearts and minds is now upon us. *