Universities Are Still Stifling Conservative Speech | Opinion

Last week, Dartmouth University canceled a College Republicans event, citing threats from progressive groups. In the wake of this decision, Dartmouth released a statement claiming that the university "prizes and defends the right of free speech." Last month, after Princeton effectively barred me from hosting a conservative speaker on campus, I was met with the same double-speak. These experiences are not unique. Universities across the country maintain the facade of an open campus while, in reality, they weaponize ostensibly neutral rules to stifle conservative speech.

Funding regimes are one way universities exercise their egregious partiality. Student clubs are often encouraged to partner with university offices and centers––an alphabet soup of diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies––for event funding. At Princeton, for example, although funding applications are purported to be evaluated based on politically neutral criteria, support is often conditioned on ideological submission. Never mind that the university excuses antisemitism and its centers endorse fact-free notions of gender; you'll have no luck getting the Cultural Understanding Center to support an event on left-wing antisemitism or the Women's Center to collaborate on a pro-life effort. In one instance, Princeton's Gender and Sexuality Resource Center dismissed an offer to co-host a conservative feminist speaker, only to turn around and organize a protest of that very speaker. Universities reserve funding for the woke agenda.

Of course, Princeton and other universities' funding is not denied to all right-leaning voices. But these voices are limited to "polite" conservative ideas—the very ideas that students are already familiar with and don't require repeating. You'll find no trouble inviting and drawing funding for speakers who argue for fewer economic regulations, but if you're looking to fund a speaker who advocates for traditional family structures or is critical of gender ideology, forget about it. The limits of acceptable ideas are determined by apparatchiks schooled in the ideologies of Judith Butler and Ibram X. Kendi who staff campus offices. Across the country, invited commencement speakers skew progressive on a 12-to-1 basis, and some universities have a ​​​​32-to-1 ratio of left-leaning to right-leaning events. The universities' most radical reign over campus conversation.

Princeton University campus
PRINCETON, NJ - FEBRUARY 04: A man walks on campus at Princeton University on February 4, 2020 in Princeton, New Jersey. The university said over 100 students, faculty, and staff who recently traveled to China must 'self-isolate' themselves for 14 days to contain any possible exposure to the novel coronavirus. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

It's not just outside speakers and events that bear the brunt of universities' allergy to heterodox thinking. The harassment exception built into universities' free speech codes is wielded as a cudgel against conservative professors and students. When Princeton professor Joshua Katz offered a thoughtful, albeit forceful, critique of certain race-related leftist dogmata, he was and continues to be hounded for speech violations—as do conservative students. Despite styling themselves guardians of open discourse, numerous universities have attempted to force avowed disrupters into conservative events against the wishes of student organizers. If conservatives make their way onto a college campus, universities will do their best to silence them.

To be clear, I am not calling for the special protection of campus conservatives or accusing every sharp-tongued progressive of harassment. Indeed, we should be wary of normalizing a culture of victimization among viewpoint minorities. But when a majority of American college students are scared of sharing their opinions on campus, viewpoint intimidation should be taken seriously. University statements supporting free speech should reassure all people on campus who want to speak up. Instead, they too often provide convenient cover for university administrators to use informal means to restrict wrongthink.

If universities genuinely aspire to be truth-seeking institutions, they must ask themselves whether robust conversation occurs on their campuses. Many will find that, despite their adoption of the famed University of Chicago speech principles or the occasional press release, free speech on their campus is dead. To revive it, universities must empower all students' voices instead of suppressing them. They should examine funding lines, harassment policies and other regulations to ensure even-handed enforcement. Better yet, establish and grow free speech centers—like the one recently founded in the James Madison Program at Princeton—to rebalance the oversaturated diversity bureaucracy. Take note of what is actually occurring on campus, not what your guidelines formally permit.

More than 80 universities––my own included––have adopted the University of Chicago speech principles and pledged themselves to free and open expression. But don't let them fool you. De jure policies are undermined by de facto absurdities, and, too often, open inquiry policies only exist to placate professors and donors who still believe in free speech. In most cases, words predicate action; in this case, we need university action to predicate student speech.

Adam Hoffman is a junior at Princeton University studying political theory.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.