The unravelling of academic freedom on US campuses

In 1970, the British socialist Mervyn Jones addressed the peculiar, indeed unique, passions that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspires, far more than any other. Jones was addressing fellow socialists, though his remarks apply to left-liberals too. He termed the conflict a “labyrinth” and wrote, “One cannot easily recall another problem over which Socialists of good faith have disagreed so much” – disagreed over everything from “sympathies” and “possible solutions” to an “analysis of the very nature of the problem.”

Almost from the moment that Hamas’ attacks of 7 October unfolded, the USA has been roiled by vitriolic debates that prove Jones’ observation – debates that, frankly, I have never witnessed in my lifetime. (The country was also torn by the Vietnam War, but that was a conflict in which tens of thousands of US soldiers were dying.) Both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel (reductive terms that I try to avoid) advocates have been punished: A magazine editor and a leading university president have been fired, speakers have been cancelled, medical school doctors have been relieved of their posts. Legal organisations, non-profits, unions, businesses, publications and city councils have been wracked by extraordinarily hostile internecine discord. Job offers have been rescinded. Even a Santa Claus was fired.

But much of the attention has focused on the country’s most elite and influential universities, which train our future leaders and are the object of both awe and resentment. And just as the Israel-Hamas war revealed long-standing rifts between what I would call the anti-fascist and anti-colonial Lefts, it also revealed trends and practices that have been distorting academic life for at least the last decade, and that have been decried by some on the Right and a smaller minority on the Left.

In the most immediate sense, the problem started with a plethora of statements – some shockingly bloodthirsty – that issued from students at Harvard and other universities, which praised the 7 October attacks, blamed Israel for them, exalted the Hamas “martyrs” and eagerly anticipated future violence against Israel. Demonstrations calling for the elimination of Israel, which some regard as a genocidal aim, became frequent. Many university administrations were either silent about the attacks themselves or issued anodyne statements: a sharp contrast to their heartfelt condemnations of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and to their support for the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

The atmosphere at some campuses soon turned more ominous as some factions of the pro-Palestinian movement became more extreme: Jewish students were threatened with death; violently antisemitic messages flooded social media; classes were disrupted by students chanting Palestinian slogans; public spaces were defaced; speakers were shouted down; classrooms and faculty offices were blocked. What in the world was happening and, more important, why did university administrators seem to be paralysed? The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – three of the country’s most selective institutions – were called before a congressional committee to explain.

It did not go well. Disaster, fiasco, pathetic, embarrassing, feeble, infuriating, hypocritical: the presidents’ testimony elicited a tsunami of outrage from various political quarters. The hearings were conducted by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a right-wing Trump supporter, but the criticism was hardly confined to the right. Laurence Tribe, who taught at Harvard Law School for decades and whose defense of constitutional rights has made him a hero to the liberal-left, described the Harvard president’s testimony as “hesitant, formulaic”, “bizarrely evasive” and “deeply troubling”.

At the hearings, the academic leaders offered bloodless, legalistic answers to the question of whether advocating the genocide of the Jewish people contradicts the schools’ codes of conduct. (Let’s not lose sight of how extraordinary it is that this question needs to be asked.) “To call their performance robotic would insult robots,” Heather Mac Donald wrote in City Journal. The three presidents might as well have been discussing a physics equation; they manifested little understanding of the fact that for many Jews, genocide is hardly a theoretical issue. In response to often hostile questioning, the academic leaders insisted that the First Amendment, and the academy’s longstanding commitment to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, meant that only harassing conduct, not heinous speech, could be subjected to disciplinary action. In essence, they argued that “context matters”: speech and action are not the same. In this, they were right.

The problem, however, is that academia, and especially elite academia, is the place where free speech goes to die. In fact, the nonpartisan free-speech organisation FIRE ranks Harvard as last among 248 US universities when it comes to protecting free speech. (University of Pennsylvania is second to last.) And that, too, has a long context.


The First Amendment is often misunderstood by outsiders, and by many Americans too. Its defense of free speech – and more important, free thought – was extremely radical in the 18th century and still is. It is the first clause in our Bill of Rights because the founders believed that in its absence no other rights would matter or, even, be possible. It prohibits any governmental body from either prohibiting or mandating speech. (Private universities are not required to adhere to First Amendment principles, though they claim to do so; as recipients of federal funds they are, however, subject to federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.)

There are many exceptions to the amendment. Calling for imminent violence is not protected. Death threats and extortion are not protected. One cannot falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre or blare music at four in the morning in a residential neighbourhood. Defamation is not protected, which is why a jury recently decided that Rudy Giuliani, one of Donald Trump’s former lawyers, must pay $148 million to two African-American election-poll workers whom Giuliani falsely accused of electoral fraud – accusations that led to years of horrifically violent, racist threats against them and that ruined their lives. But political speech – even burning the American flag – is protected.

Despite their stated dedication to First Amendment principles, many universities spend a lot of energy curtailing speech. Sometimes this emanates from the Right, and has the force of the courts and the government behind it. In some Republican-controlled states, most notoriously Florida, prohibitions on how teachers can, and cannot, address gender-related issues or teach the history of slavery have been legislated. Professors are leaving the state’s universities. Conservative groups like the erroneously-named Moms for Liberty are busy banning books, especially those dealing with LGBTQ or racial issues.

But at the elite universities, the assaults on free speech stem almost entirely from the Left, resulting in a culture of anxiety that muffles professors and students alike. So-called hate speech codes, which are both vague and capacious, dominate. Controversial views are frequently punished: at Harvard, a law school professor was stripped of his faculty deanship because he joined the defense team of an alleged sexual predator, which offended feminists, and an evolutionary biologist was vilified for asserting that there are “two sexes,” which outraged trans activists; she eventually left the university. At MIT, a noted geophysicist’s public lecture was cancelled because he had critiqued some aspects of affirmative action. These and other incidents are well-known within academia, and to some outside it, which is why the presidents’ sudden championing of free speech struck many as ludicrous or worse. Time and again, university administrators have placated angry students rather than defend either their own faculties or the free circulation of ideas; the word “feckless” comes to mind.

Talk of “privilege” abounds; in fact, in a sharp departure from its courageous history of defending political dissidents, many on the Left now argue that the First Amendment itself is a form of privilege and therefore needn’t be defended. A bizarre campus culture of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” has emerged. Underlying all this is the premise that offense is synonymous with actual danger – that speech and action are the same – and that students must therefore be protected from ideas that don’t accord with their own. Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist and robust free-speech advocate (who was the target of an attempted cancellation), has described the terrain: “Vast regions in the landscape of ideas are no-go zones, and dissenting ideas are greeted with incomprehension, outrage, and censorship.”

Complicating this situation has been the emergence of a group of ideas and practices called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), which gained steam after George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matters protests. It is difficult to separate the criticism of the presidents’ testimony from the DEI context. Though DEI aimed to increase minority representation, it is also associated with a range of highly contested ideas and has, perhaps ironically, created an intellectual monoculture: the very opposite of the multiplicity that diversity implies.

DEI is a constellation of ideas, but certain themes predominate. Many of its proponents consider any racial disparities in academic test scores or grades to be ipso racist, and argue for discarding such assessments. Some push for virtual quotas in hiring and student acceptances as the sign of “equity,” which they contrast to equality of opportunity. Others posit that US history should be taught as, primarily, the story of “structural racism”. All these ideas are debatable: except that, often, they are not. Throughout the country, DEI has become the reigning ideology at numerous universities, colleges and even elementary and high schools. Combatting “white hegemony” and “neo-colonialism” is a pedagogic aim; the Columbia School of Social Work’s framework for its entire curriculum focuses on “power, race, oppression and privilege.”

Faculty fear committing “micro-aggressions”, which can include anything from mispronouncing a student’s name to introducing an idea that makes them uncomfortable. (No one actually knows what a micro-aggression is, so everyone is kept on their toes.) All this has made faculty nervous, but far more important is that students are too: they tell me that they fear using the wrong word, expressing the wrong idea or posting the wrong thing on social media. As one explained to me, “We’re policing each other.”

Administrations are policing them too. Students and faculty at some universities attend mandatory anti-racist training sessions. Fealty to DEI principles is a stated prerequisite for hiring or promotion at some universities (including, at times, mine).

Meanwhile already hired professors can be required to post “anti-racist” affirmations, an eerie echo of the anti-Communist oaths required during the McCarthy era. Many of DEI’s critics emanate from the Right, but there are liberals and leftists, including prominent black intellectuals, who also reproach it: Randall Kennedy, a leading legal theorist at Harvard who identifies with the Left, has observed that “the DEI regime has a big problem, and that big problem is the problem of coercion.” Danielle Allen, an influential democracy theorist (also at Harvard) who was a member of the university’s initial DEI committee, has lamented the fact that like so many political projects, the positive intentions of DEI morphed into their opposite. In the wake of the Congressional hearings, she wrote, “Counter to the anti-racism agenda, we cannot create a framework for inclusion and belonging that is focused on accusation. . . Somehow the racial reckoning of 2020 lost sight of that core goal of a culture of mutual respect… A shaming culture was embraced instead.” 


A crisis can be an opportunity, and it is unclear what direction universities will take in the wake of the Congressional hearings and the debates – welcome debates, in my view – that they have inspired. The University of Pennsylvania’s president was fired (cancelled, in effect), which strikes me as exactly the wrong response, if only because it implies that the problem lies with an individual rather than with a culture. Some have called for universities to expand the definition of hate speech to more specifically include antisemitism and to fold antisemitism into the DEI project: another wrong turn. (As David French, a conservative New York Times columnist and Harvard Law School grad argued, “Censorship helped put these presidents in their predicament, and censorship will not help them escape.”) Conversely, others have argued that DEI has proved to be inherently anti-democratic and should be abolished, though it is extremely unlikely that many universities will accede to that.

At the moment, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students feel beleaguered, victimised and unsafe, particularly on highly-politicised campuses in New York City. Jewish students feel intimidated when they walk through a gauntlet of masked protesters shouting “From the river to the sea!” as they go to class or see signs saying “Zionism is Fascism”. Pro-Palestinian students have been doxed – an indefensible attack on their right to expression. Anti-Israeli events have been cancelled, and Students for Justice in Palestine, the most extreme group, has been suspended by several universities: sometimes for speech, sometimes for actions. Dueling headlines in a recent edition of the New York Times capture the atmosphere well: “Defenders of Palestinians Feel Muzzled on Campus” and “Feeling Estranged, Some Jews Wonder if They Have a Place at Harvard”.

Allen has stressed the urgency of the situation: “The health of our democracy requires renovation of our colleges and universities,” she wrote. My own dream is that faculty and students will become unfettered, that an atmosphere of robust intellectual debate will be fostered, and that faculty can raise a generation of students to be fearless, independent critical thinkers unburdened by dogma, which is the prerequisite for an informed citizenry. But changing a culture is a difficult task, far more so than issuing new guidelines. And it is actually quite hard to get the balance right between speech and harassment, and to figure out if, say, overt support for terrorist acts crosses the line from one to the other. Allen admits, “We do not know how to protect intellectual freedom and establish a culture of mutual respect at the same time. But this must be our project.”

Padraig Reidy: Who can speak and who must be silent?

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Who decides what is acceptable behaviour? And what is not? What is mainstream and what is radical? Who can speak and who must be silent?

At the moment, British authorities have found themselves engaged in a frenzy of defining what is acceptable and what is not, well beyond the bounds of the law courts. The government’s new counter terror bill has put the onus on public bodies to prevent individuals from becoming radicalised. The measure is clearly aimed at university campuses, which have come under increased scrutiny due to the unchecked presence of organisations such as Hizb Ut Tahrir, a group that has been calling for the rejection of secular democracy in favour of an Islamic Caliphate long before it was popular.

There is no legal sanction for failure to perform this duty, but the vagueness of the proposed law should worry everyone: there is no attempt to define what “radicalism” might mean. In the days before the UK took Islamism seriously, animal rights radicals were seen as a threat to peace. Before that, Irish republicans, and so on. As recent revelations on police surveillance have shown, everyone from activists to comedians to bereaved mothers can be cast as potential enemies of the state.

A recent example should give us pause for thought. Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson spoke at Oxford Union on 26 November. Robinson, currently on licenced release from prison, claimed at the beginning of the talk that he had been warned by police that there were certain things he could not say, lest he find himself back behind bars. Not, apparently, issues that could, for example, have constituted contempt of court, or the other limitations most of British society accepts. Merely opinions.

This is bad enough, but with the new counter-terror measures, could university authorities have put pressure on the union not to host their speaker of choice at all? (You may say the union is independent of the university, but it still has the power to sanction students).

What does this matter to you? You are not Tommy Robinson, and you may not even think he should be allowed to speak at the Oxford Union, or anywhere. You believe Tommy Robinson is a bigot, and plain wrong, so what’s the problem?

But think for a moment.

You’re a good person, aren’t you? I mean, at least you try to be a good person, I’m sure. You’d never throw your sandwich wrapper out of the car window. You certainly wouldn’t steal, or cheat at board games.

And you’re definitely not a bigot. You might, at certain times, find yourself applying certain stereotypes to the people you see around yourself, but your internal Jiminy Cricket, or whatever Disney avatar keeps you in line, will soon correct that. You might every so often laugh at jokes about people of other races or religions, but that’s because you understand the context. You can laugh at these things precisely because you are not bigoted: you are laughing at racism, not with it.

You might, occasionally, get frustrated at the apparently new-fangled language of online social justice activists, but you realise this is probably your fault more than theirs. You’re all right.

What if you’re not, though? What if you woke up one day, the world had tilted 180 degrees, it was summer when it was supposed to be snowing, and you were all wrong? About everything. Puppies are there to be poked, pensioners exist solely to be mugged by those younger and fitter than them, and overt, aggressive racism is not just condoned but encouraged.

This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between racism and anti-racism, or political correctness and bigotry. Because there is none. Not being a bigot is clearly better than being a bigot.

But it is a useful, simple thought experiment to carry out whenever one is tempted to excuse censorship, or even support it: what if my apparently good, apparently sensible positions were the one seen as utterly beyond the pale, and those of the person who is now being censored were the ones that held sway?

It is perhaps a refusal to recognise this idea that leads to the often-used phrase, “this isn’t a free speech issue”. Shutting down a debate on a university campus?  Not a free speech issue, but about safe spaces. Calling for a television programme to be cancelled? Not about free speech, but about appropriate channels for expression.

Anti-censorship campaigners are often portrayed as “free speech fundamentalists”, but in fact, a genuine sense of doubt is what should motivate all defences of free speech. You have to ask yourself time and time again: what if I was seen as completely wrong? Would it be better to have a society where people argued against me, however vehemently and vigorously? Or would I prefer a society where the government, the police and the courts were entitled to decide what I should and should not say?

This article was posted on Dec 4, 2014 at

Finances threaten independent student media

Daily Free Press

Independent student newspapers struggle in an increasingly digital world. Advertising revenue is shrinking. Budding journalists must learn how to fill the gap while maintaining news coverage free of administration censorship.

Of the more than 500 student newspapers in the US, Index spoke with two papers about their work and how they finance themselves independently.

“We really value our independent status because it allows us to be critical of the administration and be a watchdog of our university,” Kyle Plantz, editor-in-chief at Boston University’s Daily Free Press, said in an email interview.

The paper formed in 1970 after the university’s then president John Silber cut funding to two campus publications to prevent coverage of Kent State protests. As a result they merged to become the Free Press.

In recent years, Daily Free Press staff has written articles covering topics on campus such as gender neutral housing and students’ issues with the Student Activities Office, which oversees student organisations.  In late 2011-2012, the paper provided extensive coverage of the arrest of two ice hockey players charged with sexual assault.

Nicole Brown, editor-in-chief at New York University’s Washington Square Press, also said her paper acts as a watchdog on the NYU administration.

“We need to be able to question our university and present information to the community,” Brown said. “We also need to be able to voice our opinions without fear of being punished for those opinions.”

The Washington Square Press keeps an open dialogue on campus through its feature, NYU Reacts. It includes students’ thoughts on topics ranging from ISIS subway threats to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The paper also publishes articles on sensitive issues, such as a November 2013 piece in which NYU faculty express concern over the London campus’s rapid expansion.

Many student papers struggle to maintain steady revenue. Brown said the Washington Square Press relies on advertising, sold and managed by student staff.

“With a move toward more online content, there are more opportunities to sell ad spaces online, as well as in print,” Brown said.

For the Free Press, nearly $70,000 (£44,576.05) debt to their printers recently threatened to shutter their publication. They switched from publishing four days a week to once a week and, on 10 November, launched a crowd-sourcing campaign.

The paper surpassed their goal and raised over $82,000 in just three days, with Daily Free Press alumnus Bill O’Reilly donating $10,000 and local businessman Ernie Boch Jr. donating $50,000.

“[Reducing publication], along with cutting some other costs, we are able to continue to receive ad revenue and sustain our weekly print edition,” Plantz said. “We are assessing how we want to use [the extra funds] and what will be beneficial to our organization in the future.”

Independent newspapers must find a way to financially sustain themselves or campuses will lose reliable, student-run news.

As Plantz said, “We are one of the only outlets that allow students to have a voice, question authority, and be a place for students, faculty, staff, and the administration to come together to learn about what’s happening on campus.”

This article was originally posted 28 November on

University: A safe place for safe ideas

Students defy the protest ban imposed by the University of London to speak out against the privatisation of university support services. (Photo: Peter Marshall/Demotix)

In February, students defied a protest ban imposed by the University of London to speak out against the privatisation of university support services. (Photo: Peter Marshall/Demotix)

There is a strong attitude across university campuses that censorship is a good tool for the benefit of a multicultural and inclusive society, that respects the values of all its members, freeing them from being exposed to anything they may find “harmful”.

Many students now sign up to policies that promote “safe space” throughout the university campus from the clubs and bars, to the seminar room and lecture theatres. Most of the time these policies go unnoticed and unchallenged as the bureaucrats strengthen their grip over the university and its members, and political activity wains under prevailing conformity and debateophobia.

These policies exist in antithesis to the true purpose of institutions of higher learning – to debate every idea and challenge every prejudice.

The promotion of safe spaces has been the preserve of National Union of Students (NUS) officials and university management for a number of years, seeking to create inclusive and welcoming environment for a growing student body, and attract more students from minority and/or vulnerable backgrounds. Originally the policy specifically dealt with the LGBT community. The US group Advocates for Youth describe safe space as one in which every individual can “relax and be fully self-expressed” free from feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe.

The University of Bristol Students’ Union expresses the policy aptly: “The principle values [adopted from the NUS’ ‘safe space’ policy] are to ensure an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement” (my emphasis); ranging from freedom from physical and criminal activity, to being free from having one’s culture and beliefs questioned.

In the November of last year the LGBT society at the University of Liverpool lodged a complaint against the Islamic Society’s (ISoc) hosting of Cleric Mufti Ismail Menk due to his homophobic views, appealing to the Liverpool Guild of Students safe space policy. Despite the meeting being private and only open the ISoc members, the LGBT believed that the events would impinge on their “freedoms and happiness”, and would rather the Liverpool Guild of Students ban the event than have their lifestyles judged by others.

Even university institutions themselves have codified what free speech should look like on campus. The London School of Economics requires speakers to be screened. Bolton University details topics considered to be outside of the realm of debate, because of their controversial or sensitive nature, from animal experimentation to sexual abuse of children and paedophilia, and, most worryingly, “where the subject matter might be considered to be of a blasphemous nature”.

Given that such august institutions have taken on the narrative of safety first, it is no surprise that this has only strengthened students as censors resolve.

Last month the student union at the University of Derby revealed that it would be continuing its ban on the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in an upcoming debate in the run up to the 22 May European and local council elections. This follows its refusal to allow David Gale, UKIP candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections of 2012, to take part in a Q&A session. This censorship and conformism came under the tired old banner of ‘no platform’, with the SU contending that they had the right to create a space in which students feel safe while studying on campus.

The safety-first mentality also pervades throughout the on-going No More Page 3 and anti-lad culture campaigns that are swarming across campuses in the UK. Painting a regressive view of human beings the campaigns believe that a bad joke, a bit of over zealous flirting and seeing a pair of breasts irredeemably damage women who come into have to look at them and creates an “unrealistic and potentially damaging picture of what women’s bodies look like”.

Unsurprisingly, whether it’s No More Page 3 or the ban of Blurred Lines, any attempt to engage in open and critical discussion of the issues has been met with scorn. Lucy Pedrick, of Sheffield Students’ Union council, believes a “referendum [on the banning of the sale of The Sun newspaper on campus] would not be a fair debate”, keeping the discussions behind closed doors for those who are members of the right forums and councils.

It appears then that today’s students are too vulnerable to be exposed to any robust and challenging discussion. This grows out of a culture that has promoted the idea that every individual is emotionally vulnerable and cannot cope with a growing range of encounters and experiences. It is now believed that we live in a world of unmitigated risks and problems, only waiting around the corner to trip you up again, and our ability to deal with everyday problems seems to have diminished. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, vulnerability has become conceptualised a central component of the human condition and “contemporary culture unwittingly encourages people to feel traumatised and depressed by experiences hitherto regarded as routine”, from unwanted cat-calling to the discussion of dangerous ideas.

It’s a far cry from the tradition out of which the theory of liberal education and the modern university was born. The period of the Enlightenment was led by the rallying call of Immanuel Kant – ‘Sapere aude!’ – dare to know and dare to use your own understanding in the creation and formation of your own opinions. However, this is the reverse of what we are seeing today as debate is closed down and speech is censored on campus all in the name of safety.

If we are to recapture the campus, lead the progress of human knowledge, and create an active and engaged citizenry towards progressive social change, it’s free speech and expression we must engage in.

This article was posted on 25 April 2014 at