Universities must engage with challenging ideas and resist speech restrictions

Debates are healthy for a democratic society. A lively exchange of views gets people to engage with unorthodox ideas, challenge their beliefs, and form informed opinions. A powerful speech is like a piece of exercise equipment in the gym: it’s a tool for building democratic muscle and stamina.

William J. Watkins Jr

William J. Watkins Jr

Unfortunately, in the wake of protests against the war between Israel and Hamas, many are calling for restrictions on free speech. For example, Professor Claire O. Finkelstein of the University of Pennsylvania recently lamented in the Washington Post that the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects free speech and a free press, also applies to public universities. She stressed that “restricting toxic speech directed against Jews and other minorities” should be a priority.

People also read…

But what is “poisonous speech” oras it is often said, “Hate speech”? Does that include someone who compares Israel’s treatment of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip to the Nazi Holocaust? What about the claim that the number of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip amounts to genocide? Or is the “poisonous speech” limited to vile claims that the Israeli population must be exterminated by its Arab neighbors?

The big question, of course, is: Who in government or on campus is all-knowing enough to make judgments about such matters? President Joe Biden? Former President Donald Trump? An anonymous bureaucrat? The president of Harvard University?

This latest call for speech restrictions is the latest manifestation of the “safe space” phenomenon on campus. Instead of engaging with challenging ideas, students and their faculty are demanding comfortable echo chambers where only their views—no matter how silly or ill-informed—are praised.

Peter Certo: Don't blame the protesters on campus for trying to voice their opinions

I was a student in the late 2000s when I first encountered cancel culture. A campus group had invited Nick Griffin – a racist Holocaust denier and leader of a fascist British party – to speak.

An anonymous author defended the need for safe spaces in an article for Teen Vogue: “Due to the frequency of incidents related to racism, sexism, or homophobia on some college campuses, students have expressed a need for a place where they can have constructive discussions or receive support without fear of implicit or explicit microaggressions.”

These “snowflakes,” as some call them, make college campuses sound like the hangouts of conservative professors who want to teach Western civilization, American history (without the whitewashing of the 1619 Project) or the classicsIn fact, there are 12 times more liberal professors than conservative ones at leading U.S. universities, according to a 2016 study published in the Econ Journal Watch. The fear of a Neanderthal professorship that terrifies progressive freshmen is comparable to the 1.2 million Army soldiers begging for Xanax because the Bahamas might invade.

Moreover, restrictions on speech have not always been good in American history. In 1798, President John Adams’ Federalist Party passed the Sedition Act in response to the Quasi-War with France. This law made criticism of the federal government a crime punishable by two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.Several newspaper editors who had sharply criticized the Adams administration were prosecuted in court. The Sedition Act will be remembered as a stain on Adams and the Federalist Party.

Abraham Lincoln, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, closed more than 300 newspapers in the North during the Civil War. He unilaterally repealed the Habeas Corpus Act, which allowed imprisoned editors to challenge their imprisonment. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional, but Lincoln ignored the ruling, tarnishing Lincoln’s reputation for liberty.

During World War I, the United States passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it illegal to insult the government, the Constitution, or members of the military. Jacob Abrams, a self-proclaimed “anarchist socialist,” and four colleagues incurred the wrath of the authorities for distributing leaflets. in English and Yiddish Criticism of the government for its opposition to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Four of the five radicals were imprisoned for their activities, which should be protected by the First Amendment.

History has judged speech restrictions harshly because protected spaces and the limitation of debate atrophy our democratic muscles. We need to exercise them by engaging with opinions we abhor rather than becoming intellectual couch potatoes.

The campus unrest associated with the war between Israel and Hamas is just the latest temptation to shut ourselves off from ideas.

No doubt most radicals who chant “from the river to the sea” in support of Palestine probably cannot identify which river and which sea are meant. Nevertheless, the antidote to such statements is not to silence those who chant such things, but to explain to them clearly why they are wrong.

Watkins Jr. is a research fellow at the Independent Institute: He wrote this for