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A new totalitarianism comes to campus

Ilya Shapiro’s suspension and the growing movement to squelch free speech at colleges and universities

Ilya Shapiro was scheduled to begin his new job at Georgetown Law this week. Handout

A new totalitarianism comes to campus
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Last week, newly hired Georgetown University law professor Ilya Shapiro tweeted a message criticizing President Joe Biden’s declaration that he would only consider a black woman as Justice Stephen Breyer’s replacement on the U.S. Supreme Court. Shapiro’s messages—while clumsily stated and now deleted—noted that women of any race should be considered and that it was a disservice to the potential pick and to the court to precondition the nomination by race. Shapiro was immediately slandered as a racist, and Georgetown law students petitioned the school to fire him. His comments obviously were not racist or degrading, but a sizable number of students and student groups at Georgetown have decided that Shapiro—a Jewish man with a record of litigating cases in favor of free speech, free association, and free inquiry—must be removed from their campus for his “offensive” views. On Monday, the school announced it was putting him on paid leave pending an investigation.

Shapiro’s case illustrates the rising spirit of totalitarianism on college and university campuses in the United States. Free speech events and conservative speakers are routinely canceled or hounded into meeting off campus. When they can meet on campus, they are shouted down and must endure profanity-laced tirades from so-called student activists. Colorado State University went so far as to offer students assistance and help from no less than 17 different departments if they were “affected” by a free speech event. According to The Wall Street Journal, most students at U.S. colleges and universities feel intimidated by their professors and are afraid to share their actual beliefs in class for fear of ostracization or other punitive measures taken by professors, administrators, or even fellow students.

Many observers—conservative and liberal—fear the rise of an ideological totalitarianism on college campuses and argue that administrators and faculty need to do what they can to keep oppressive and speech-squelching dispositions from becoming entrenched in our institutions of higher learning. Increasingly, however, it appears that those who would silence voices who would engage in the time-honored academic tradition of debate and inquiry are now well-established in administrative and faculty positions throughout higher education in the United States. Fragility and cowardliness roam free in the hallowed halls of American academia.

Anti-speech totalitarianism is no longer a hypothetical; it is a fact of academic life, and defenders of free inquiry and free speech on the political left and right must address what has become, at least at public universities, state-sponsored bullying.

In response to vitriol experienced by professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, who had given a talk at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., on immigration, Alexander Riley noted in First Things that even the idea of debate and hearing an opposing viewpoint to campus orthodoxy was considered “another element of white supremacy.” Further, faculty and students claimed to be “harmed” by speech. “In a healthy academic culture,” noted Riley, “the ethics of debate and argument include a commitment to civility and a courteous, professional demeanor.” He added that liberally educated professors traditionally saw ad hominem attacks as “illicit, unscholarly, and dangerous, threatening the well-being of the university as a truth-seeking community.” But Riley described a “wokeist approach” based in personal insults and attacks as the prevailing campus culture of today.

Anti-speech totalitarianism is no longer a hypothetical; it is a fact of academic life, and defenders of free inquiry and free speech on the political left and right must address what has become, at least at public universities, state-sponsored bullying. For far too long, conservatives and liberals committed to free speech have quickly apologized for transgressions—real or imagined—in the hopes that good faith, a spirit of forgiveness, and human charity might prevail.

Shapiro apologized for his tweets being poorly worded and offered an olive branch to his detractors, but it was to no avail. Georgetown law students will tolerate nothing less than the complete purging of the minority view. Their dean seems no less interested in debate or discourse. In his toadying response, he claimed that Shapiro’s comments were “antithetical” to the work of Georgetown Law’s commitment to building “inclusion, belonging, and respect for diversity.” More ominously, he acceded to the students’ nonsensical charge that Shapiro engaged in racial stereotyping.

In the coming years, devotees of free speech, debate, and traditional academic inquiry on the right and left must offer a more forceful response to anti-speech totalitarians on college and university campuses. That response must take many forms. In the case of state universities, it might require legislatures removing funding until administrators uphold historic standards of free inquiry. For individuals, it may require the difficult work of seeing through our sentimental hopes that the kids are really alright and confronting the fact that our universities, colleges, and graduate schools are training a generation of totalitarians.

Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.


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