In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave what was known as the “Secret Speech” to a gathering of Soviet officials and bureaucrats. In a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev denounced many of the actions of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. The speech, a defining moment of Khrushchev’s Premiership, was met at various points by applause, laughter, and stunned silence, with multiple delegates reportedly fainting upon some of the more scandalous revelations.
Though Khrushchev’s address was generally well-received by the audience, at one point, a man in the audience reportedly shouted something to the effect of “you were a colleague of Stalin — where were you? Why didn’t you do anything to stop this?” Khrushchev barked into the microphone: “who was that? Stand up and show yourself this instant!” Nobody stood, and after a period of tense, terrified silence in the Great Hall, Khrushchev said, in a quiet voice, “now you know why I didn’t stop him.”
To be clear: it would be ludicrous to draw a literal comparison between the repression of the era of Joseph Stalin to refer to the speech situation on college campuses today as “Stalinist.” Obviously, college students do not face the threat of forced labor or summary execution – compared to this fairly low bar, free speech on college campuses is quite protected. That said, it has become apparent that colleges have failed to cultivate the flourishing atmosphere of open discourse that they claim to promote.
As of September 2021, more than 80 percent of college students said that they have had to censor themselves, and about 60 percent of students stated that they would not be comfortable publicly disagreeing with their professor. The chilly atmosphere regarding free speech does not only apply to students, either: the saga of Ilya Shapiro and Georgetown University’s Center for the Constitution demonstrates that, like Premier Khrushchev, members of the system are not immune to its wrath. Mr. Shapiro’s transgression was to criticize President Joe Biden’s commitment to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, arguing that such a commitment would prevent President Biden from nominating what was, in his view, the “objectively best pick” for the Supreme Court, Sri Srinivasan of the D.C. Court of Appeals. Mr. Shapiro may have conflated his subjective opinion with the objective truth (something far from uncommon in academia), but his true crime, in the eyes of his new employer, was the back half of his statement: “but alas [Srinivasan] doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.”
Mr. Shapiro quickly apologized and deleted the tweet, blaming Twitter’s 280-character format for his “inartful” language. But the damage was done. Mounting outrage from portions of the student body prompted the Dean of Georgetown’s law school to send a campus-wide email, slamming the tweet as “appalling” and “at odds with everything we stand for.” Georgetown launched an investigation into whether or not Mr. Shapiro violated their discrimination and anti-harrassment policies, during which he was suspended without pay. It took four months until the investigation cleared him, and only off the technicality that he was not employed by the university at the time of the tweet. How it took four months for Georgetown’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action (IDEAA) to determine this fact remains unclear.
Although he was technically cleared, Mr. Shapiro eventually resigned from his position, saying that the IDEAA told him “[t]he university’s anti-harassment policy does not require that a respondent intends to denigrate … Instead, the Policy requires consideration of the ‘purpose or effect’ of a respondent’s conduct.” In other words, a comment is deemed offensive if people are, or claim to be, offended by it. Mr. Shapiro notes that, under this policy, to publicly state several of his legal positions — that the Constitution forbids race-based affirmative action, or that it does not explicitly protect abortion rights — are fireable offenses.
As an aside, when controversy arose over Georgetown Professor C. Christine Fair’s 2018 tweets that several Republican senators involved in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings deserved “miserable deaths while feminists laugh,” followed by post-mortem castration and other forms of corpse defilement, Georgetown’s statement on the controversy defended Fair’s right to express herself on social media. The university stated that faculty views expressed on their social media pages are their own, and that university policy “does not prohibit speech based on the person presenting ideas or the content of those ideas, even when those ideas may be difficult, controversial or objectionable.”
Mr. Shapiro’s experience is far from an aberration. Though I cannot provide personal insights into every college campus in America, I would never dream of articulating my own political beliefs — which are, at most, moderately right-of-center — in public, much less contesting a fellow student or a professor over the tenets of the progressive orthodoxy that is dominant on my campus. The admirable effort to make campuses and society at large a more welcoming place has transformed into a repressive system that punishes anyone who refuses to toe the line.
Some have argued that those who feel unfree to express their views merely merely lack the courage to express them. Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, argued that view in a New York Times piece entitled “Anxiety About Wokeness Is Intellectual Weakness,” saying that “those who complain of such conformity should recognize that their fear isn’t the fault of anyone’s wokeness or hostility toward free expression. It is a sign that they need more courage.” The problem, Roth claims, is not that the environment on campus is hostile to free speech, but that students are not brave enough to voice their opinions. Like Khrushchev’s heckler, he asks, if change is within your power to create, why won’t you do something?
Placing this onus on individuals ignores the Leviathan, both formal and informal, that pervades every aspect of college speech. The consequences for a student who expresses an “unpopular” opinion on college campuses — an opinion which may be fairly mainstream in vast swathes of this country – are numerous. If it occurs in a classroom, the professor or other students may personally attack the student, as University of Virginia student Emma Camp described in The New York Times. Social shunning may follow, both from true believers and from those who do not want to be associated with a “troublemaker.” The student’s grades may suffer, and they may be passed over for promotion within extracurricular or pre-professional organizations. This is only the tip of the iceberg: if the administration itself gets involved, which is more common for faculty but can still happen to students, sanctions could limit the student from continuing their education or finding employment after college.
Of course, not every student who argues, say, a pro-life or anti-lockdown argument on a college campus will suffer these consequences. But the risk is real, and with risk comes fear. Does it take courage to express one’s convictions in the face of this fear? Absolutely. Is it reasonable to expect students to run this risk, or to blame the increasingly frozen campus speech environment on those who do not wish to risk personal and professional ruin? Absolutely not. Like Khrushchev in the Stalinist era, we cannot expect improvements to come from individuals who face the full brunt of the system’s consequences. To do so exonerates the system itself and places blame on those who suffer from its excesses and, in reality, remain powerless to effect change. One might even call this line of thought victim-blaming.
The oft-repeated counterargument from the progressive left is that freedom of speech has not been impaired because the state is not involved; that is, we do not have gulags or secret police in our country that persecute individuals for speech. This is factually correct, but it is also a narrow, short-sighted view of freedom of expression. The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech from government action because it is a natural right – one of the foundational ideas of Western civilization – but also because it is effective. Freedom of expression allows people to openly discuss the challenges they face and scrutinize possible solutions. Listening to and understanding opposing views is an essential part of understanding one’s own beliefs, a process without which it will be impossible to develop mature, well-rounded opinions. Colleges that claim to support healthy debate and open expression ought to take action to ensure that the right to free expression is easily exercised, rather than simply just not violated on a constitutional level; such an expectation seems reasonable for institutions that routinely bill students tens of thousands of dollars per year for their services.
Again, a growing consensus seems to be emerging that things have, indeed, gone too far; that more systemic changes need to be made if colleges can return to being open forums of free expression and thoughtful debate. In the future, some of my work at the College Contemporary will explore this issue and possible solutions in more detail, with the hopes that this publication can advance not only our stated goal of promoting freedom of speech within college journalism, but freedom of speech on the whole of campus.
In the meantime, take a lesson or two from Khrushchev.