What Is Free Speech Without Intellectual Diversity?

by James A. Bacon

Eleven days ago the Editorial Board of the Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia student newspaper, opined that it could not condone the “platforming” of former Vice President Mike Pence by allowing him to speak on the university grounds.

The blowback has been gratifying to see.

While some students have expressed support for suppressing ideas deemed hateful and hurtful, others have denounced the editorial. Crucially, UVa President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom weighed in in favor of free speech, stating in a CD piece that “all views, beliefs, and perspectives deserve to be articulated and heard, free from interference.”

Let us praise the Ryan administration when plaudits are due. But let us also recognize that at UVa “free speech” is a sub-set of a larger issue: an ever-narrowing range of permissible viewpoints. Threats to free speech spring from intellectual monocultures, which is exactly what UVa is becoming. A defense of free speech would not be necessary in a university that fostered more intellectual diversity.

As documented by donations to presidential election campaigns, the faculty and staff of UVa lean more lopsidedly to the left than ever in its history. Republicans and conservatives are not extinct, but they are endangered species. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion statements, required by several schools and colleges within the university, are filtering out anyone who disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy regarding race, sex and gender — issues that permeate every department and every discipline.

While Ryan and Baucom may stand up for a student’s right to hear Pence in a once-in-a-lifetime appearance, it would be nice if they championed a student’s right to hear and express a broad range of views every day in the classroom. A fixation on a single speech glides over the fact that the criteria for recruiting, hiring, and promoting faculty, combined with the intolerant views of a noisy student minority, suppress free speech in daily discourse.

Fourth-year student Emma Camp created a national sensation when she wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece, “I went to college to learn from my professors and peers. I welcomed an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement. Instead, my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think.”

The suppression of unpopular views often emanates from the students themselves. Camp, a self-professed liberal, cited a feminist theory class in which she voiced the idea that non-Indian women can criticize the practice of suttee, ritual suicide by Indian widows upon the death of their husbands. The room felt tense. People shifted in their seats. Someone got angry, and then others got angry. (Apparently, it is verboten for a person of European ancestry to criticize practices of a non-Western culture.)

Over time, Camp writes, fewer classmates spoke up. “Our discussions became monotonous echo chambers. Absent rich debate and rigor, we became mired in socially safe ideas.”

Camp is not alone in entertaining such thoughts. In a National Review column published today, third-year student Ian Schwartz said he had been attracted by UVa’s reputation for upholding free discourse in academic settings, in accordance with Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Schwartz credits the administration with standing up for free speech, but notes that “the flourishing of free discourse depends not only on the university’s official policies, but even more so on students possessing habits of mind that invite the expression of dissident opinions.É… If students continue to view open debate as a threat to their personal safety, the university is destined to become a shell of its former self.”

Similarly, the Editorial Board of The Jefferson Independent, an independent student newspaper, published a critique of the Cavalier Daily’s Editorial Board. “The Cavalier Daily is not the arbiter of free speech, the definer of words, or the judge of what constitutes right versus wrong,” stated the editors. “We value the importance of alternative thoughts, views, morals, and beliefs— and denounce all efforts to silence them.”

Clearly, as Camp, Schwartz and the Jefferson Independent editors demonstrate, there are still sparks of free thinking at the University of Virginia.

It is helpful for Ryan and Baucom to voice their support of free speech, but they must go deeper. If they want UVa to remain a great university, they must address the intellectual conformity. If students can’t express their honest thoughts in classrooms, free speech doesn’t mean much if it’s limited to attending speeches by outside conservatives like Pence. There is much work yet to be done.

If you want to support the Jeffersonian legacy of free intellectual inquiry at UVa, come take part in the Jefferson Council’s first annual meeting April 5th. There is still room, although, to trot out a trite cliche, tickets are selling fast. Find event details here.