With the controversies over campus lectures coming to a head this spring, academic liberals are finally beginning to vocalize their substantive defenses of censorship.
In the New Republic, a Colby College professor argued that keeping conservative speakers off campus is necessary to the process of curating knowledge of value for impressionable students. On Monday, New York University Vice Provost Ulrich Baer defended so-called "snowflakes" in the pages of the New York Times, dramatically thanking them for "keeping watch over the soul of our republic."
"The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks," Baer wrote. "It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community."
Baer uses the example of transgender rights to claim "the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing."
In fact, the opposite is true.
When I was in school, progressive students attempted to shut down my Young Americans for Freedom chapter because we opposed mandatory sensitivity training on transgender pronouns. We objected primarily to the idea of mandating political training, not the use of pronouns. But because we exercised our right to speak out, our campus engaged in a productive conversation about the merits of "mandatory sensitivity training," which is a reasonable discussion on the proper roles of university authorities. All participants emerged from the experience enriched by its lessons.
Baer would have that conversation stifled for preventing transgender people from being "recognized as fully human," despite both sides' emphatic efforts to speak with the utmost respect and compassion for members of that community.
But no matter how many times conservatives make those efforts, progressives obsess over every syllable we utter to argue that we are denying the humanity of any given marginalized community. There is nothing we can do short of agreeing with the Left to satisfy their standards. Even if our group on campus had objected to the use of transgender pronouns, is it not possible to argue that point, or, say, argue against Black Lives Matter, without denying people their humanity? If any new idea is automatically immune from rigorous debate simply because the opposition is deemed harmful to people, where does that standard lead us?
Consequently, serious discussion has become impossible on campuses. When mainstream conservative thought is equated with white supremacy or hate speech, only one side is afforded the right to express itself.
Like the Colby professor, Baer also argues that students no longer need to hear from campus speakers to be exposed to dissenting opinions because they enjoy access to the internet. It's true that any student on a campus where Charles Murray or Ann Coulter has been banned is able to watch another lecture on YouTube or pick up their books. But that's not what happens. At campus lectures, interested students who both agree and disagree often bring less interested friends to the event who would never otherwise seek out the information.
The lectures broach new ideas that would never otherwise find an audience in the classrooms of most liberal professors. And they give students the opportunity to engage directly with those speakers, allowing them to ask questions about issues specific to their campus or their personal lives. It is not something that can be replicated.
When I hosted a lecture by a prominent conservative on my campus, a liberal student stepped up to the microphone during a question and answer session to challenge the speaker on religious liberty. The speaker's answer, measured and calm, left the student speechless. She eventually retreated from the microphone after tilting her head and saying, "I guess I never thought of it in that way before."
That is the value of a campus lecture.
Professors do not give voice to alternative viewpoints, often presenting their perspectives as unimpeachable fact, thereby discouraging young people from even thinking to investigate the issues further. As a consequence, students graduate with worldviews that have never been subject to constructive criticism.
"It has been regrettably easy for commentators to create a simple dichotomy between a younger generation's oversensitivity and free speech as an absolute good that leads to the truth," Baer contended.
To some extent, I have to agree. For instance, I'm glad Baer published this op-ed because conservatives (understandably) have developed a reflex to issue outrage and mockery over the actions of "snowflakes" without understanding how the material professors like Baer teach in the classroom informs their behavior.
The crux of Baer's argument, however, is that these "snowflakes" are not oversensitive – they are reasonably sensitive. He argues that if a speaker denies a marginalized community their humanity — per the judgment of those privileged enough to hold power on college campuses (liberals) — they are rightfully silenced. But it is doubtful that if a conservative student objected to a liberal speaker on the basis that their message is psychologically harmful to the humanity of, for instance, people of faith, they would be taken seriously.
This strikes me as similar to feminists' complaints about relinquishing power over women's rights to the "patriarchy." How can institutions dominated by one group who cannot understand another be trusted to protect it?
The problem with imposing qualifications on free speech, especially in higher education, is that they inevitably require the liberal academic bureaucracy to make judgments on what constitutes reasonable insight.
That will never ensure academia provides students with the balanced and challenging educations they are paying tens of thousands of dollars to receive.
The best answer to these questions is always to facilitate more speech, not less.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.