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The Real Free Speech Threat on College Campuses

Toward a Higher Higher Education

By Julien Berman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julien Berman ’26 lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

I know, I know, another article about free speech on campus. But frankly, nearly every piece misses the mark. I think many agree that free speech is under threat at universities, but for the wrong reasons.

For the past decade, this ceaseless debate about free speech has primarily centered only on one question: Does campus discourse reflect an ideologically diverse, cordially cohabitating smorgasbord of perspectives?

This question, while important, only plays into the hands of conservative coalitions purportedly standing up for free speech. They protest left-wing “cancel culture” for silencing conservative voices. It’s time for the left to expose this hypocrisy for what it is: a smokescreen that obscures a far more pernicious threat to free speech — one that comes from the right, not the left.

And what is this threat? A nationwide culture war that systematically censors educators who dare to speak on subjects that conservative lawmakers deem off-limits. And unlike the threats to free speech from the left, these conservative weapons of war are actual laws that can result in loss of employment, prosecution, and even ultimately criminal penalties.

We need look no further than The Crimson to observe the ways in which conservatives couch their criticism of Harvard University in free speech rhetoric. Nearly two years ago, a columnist bemoaned that just three percent of the faculty is conservative, that Harvard is too ideologically homogeneous, and that student protests exclude valuable perspectives and run counter to Harvard’s mission to support the free exchange of ideas. More recently, The Crimson reported on a petition signed by nearly 250 Harvard affiliates urging the University’s Presidential Search Committee to replace former University President Lawrence S. Bacow with a candidate who protects “diversity of opinion” and makes University culture more tolerant of controversial conservative voices.

This is the wrong free speech conversation. Instead, we should focus on the slew of new laws designed to chill speech by keeping certain discussions out of the classroom — censorship par excellence. For example, in Florida, the Stop W.O.K.E. Act — W.O.K.E. standing for “Wrongs to our Kids and Employees” — signed into law last April prohibits professors from teaching anything that could make a student feel “psychological distress” on account of their race. In other words, professors who make students or colleagues uncomfortable in the classroom when discussing historical acts of racism may face the prospect of litigation.

Thankfully, a United States District Judge temporarily blocked the statute from taking effect on college campuses. But other instances of censorship are slipping through the cracks, at least so far. For example, the Idaho legislature banned public funds from being used to help students receive abortions. Professors at the University of Idaho, a state-funded institution, must therefore tread lightly. The university administration even sent out a memo urging faculty to refrain from advocating for the use of birth control and supporting abortion in any circumstance. Now, educators can no longer advocate for abortion rights in a classroom setting, nor even provide advice to those seeking abortion services without fear of criminal prosecution.

These two examples are not isolated instances. Eighteen states have enacted some kind of rule preventing professors from discussing systemic racism and sexism. For a party that claims to support free and open discussion, the right has embraced a version of censorship far more extreme than the left’s hotly-debated, so-called “cancel culture.”

To be fair, conservative underrepresentation on college campuses might be a real problem. But it’s hard to even compare that concern with these dystopian laws. On the one hand, professors are fired and universities are sued for vast sums of money, whereas on the other, oftentimes there are only a few student protests and a brief clamor. Today, conservative lawmakers seek to bend the entirety of higher education to support their political agenda. Liberal activists call out professors for discrimination and write acerbic articles in the school newspaper. The two are just not the same.

Thankfully, such draconian legislation has so far left Harvard unscathed. But because students at similar Ivy League institutions are primarily in blue states, we remain insulated from the broader national problem. We fixate on the issue at close proximity — “cancel culture” on our own campus — and miss a more serious but not immediately evident free speech problem nationwide.

Widespread cultural censorship is very much looming on the horizon; it just isn’t coming from the left-leaning academy indoctrinating students with wokeness. The left must start exposing conservative doublespeak and understanding the right-wing crackdown for what it really is: the most dangerous threat to free speech on college campuses since the McCarthy era. Otherwise, laws akin to the ones passed in Florida and Idaho will begin to slip away, unnoticed, amidst the smokescreen of the political debate about cancel culture.

So the next time you read about the latest campus cancel culture controversy, keep in mind the professors in red states under gag orders. Let’s start talking about that free speech crisis.

Julien Berman ’26 lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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