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The Cost of Free Speech

Harvey Mansfield

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In the universities it's almost as high as the tuition.

Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus
Donald Alexander Downs
Independent Institute/Cambridge, 295 pp., $28.99

Sensitivity has taken over our society, and nowhere more securely than in our universities.

To see what has happened, consider this small fact. Half a century ago, a liberal Harvard psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, published a book, The Nature of Prejudice, that began the social science study of stereotypes. Though of course hostile to stereotypes, he allowed they might have a kernel of truth. For example, he said, fewer Jews are drunks than Irish.

A remark like that could not be made at a university today except in private to trusted friends. And if you made it, you would be testing your trust. Jews and Irish, to be sure, are not protected groups, but to speak so frankly even about them would betray a very troubling levity in your attitude toward groups that are protected.

Sensitivity is today's version of the soft despotism that Alexis de Tocqueville worried about in democracies, and it would not have surprised him that the worst of it would be found in the halls of the intellect. Only in American universities, some 300 of them, from 1987 to 1992, did the movement for sensitivity go so far as to enact semi-legal speech codes proscribing offensive speech. These codes provoked the ire of a few free speech heroes on the campuses and, more important, prompted them to mobilize opposition to the codes and to attempts by university administrators to enforce them.

One of these heroes, Donald Downs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has written an account of his own successful coup there, together with accounts of a comparable victory at Pennsylvania and failures at Berkeley and Columbia. He accompanies his narratives with reflections, which are those of an old-fashioned free speech liberal. At first a supporter of speech codes, Downs changed his mind when he saw them in operation. Readers get a chance to judge the virtues and defects of the free speech position in trying circumstances when many liberals abandoned it for sensitivity.

Read the entire article on the Weekly Standard website (new window will open).

Posted: 28-Sep-05



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