Crisis Averted or War Lost?

At the ideologically amorphous Niskanen Center, Columbia University economics Acadia University political science prof Jeffrey A. Sachs announced the good great news.


How cool is that? Sure, Josh Blackman was the target of the children at CUNY law school, to prevent him from giving a talk about white supremacy free speech, but that’s CUNY and chances are they just hadn’t heard yet because they’re a little slow on the uptake, if you catch my drift.

Sachs proves his point using statistics, as that makes it empirical and everybody knows empiricism is the best ism. Protests are down. Disinvitations are down. The antifa hasn’t had to beat anyone with a bike lock on campus in a while. So there ya go.

What ever happened to the Campus Free Speech Crisis? A year ago, universities were bracing for a new wave of Charlottesvilles. Administrators were predicting more protests, more deplatformings, and more out-of-control student activism. Indeed, the crisis was thought to be so acute that the White House convened a forum to address it, while state legislatures across the country scrambled to pass new laws and regulations.

What a difference a year makes. Rather than collapsing into chaos, 2018 was a year of relative quiet on college campuses. There were fewer deplatformings, fewer fired professors, and less violence compared to 2017. There was also more dialogue, greater respect for faculty free speech rights, and increased tolerance on both the right and the left. All of which raises the question: what went right?

For those of you with “begging the question” on your logical fallacy bingo cards, check it off. Sachs doesn’t prove his point. Indeed, he doesn’t see that as his burden. Rather, his contention is that the stats don’t disprove his point, which means he wins. But for two problems, one of which he addresses and the other of which he ignores.

The latter is that students were distracted by a squirrel named Trump, and used all their time and energy left after crafting their #MeToo stories by resisting, posting really strong statements of disapproval on the twitters and instagram. You think coming up with a slogan like “impeach the motherfucker” isn’t the product of long and deep thought, not to mention market research?

The former is that speech has been sufficiently chilled on campus that nobody would invite Milo  or Naxo Richard Spencer to speak anyway.

Let’s tackle the worst case scenario first: self-censorship. According to this theory, the decline in campus protests and faculty controversies isn’t actually a good thing at all. Rather, it is the product of a pervasive chilling effect. Thus, if fewer conservative speakers are being disinvited on college campuses, it is because they are not being invited in the first place. Or maybe they are being invited, but are too afraid to show up. Either way, what initially looks like a good thing is, in fact, something quite ominous.

It’s hard to disinvite someone who isn’t invited. Sachs has that covered.

Fortunately, there is little evidence to support this theory. Self-censorship does happen, especially in the classroom and among contingent faculty. However, there is no indication that it is responsible for 2018’s drop in deplatformings or faculty terminations.

Sachs doesn’t give his argument the credit it deserves. He’s right because you can’t prove he’s not. But he does contend he’s got affirmative evidence that makes his case.

In short, the evidence for a chilling effect, particularly in regards to invited speakers, is sketchy at best. By contrast, the evidence for a heating effect is quite robust. Many students explain that the only reason they choose to invite controversial speakers to campus is to challenge or provoke their classmates. Meanwhile, conservative organizations like Turning Point USA and Young America’s Foundation proudly tout the ability of their speakers to “trigger” liberal students. In fact, generating student outrage, even to the point of being deplatformed, has become such a badge of honor that some speakers are fabricating deplatforming incidents where none exist.

For those of you playing logical fallacy bingo, check off false dichotomy. Much as Sachs concedes, if only in passing, that there have been instances of censorship on campus, he cherry picks the outliers as evidence of a “heating effect,” because triggering the libs encompasses the core concern of free speech. It’s unclear how many Sach’s “many” refers to, but what it clearly does not refer to is the right of every student to speak his or her mind without fear of castigation, if not a bike lock to the noggin.

But wait! There’s more!!!

Finally, there are hopeful signs that a new culture of tolerance is taking hold on campus.

In colleges and universities across the country, students are forming new clubs and networks dedicated to respectful dialogue. Campus leaders are following suit, explicitly affirming the value of free speech and establishing protocols for its protection. Among conservatives in particular, there is a renewed emphasis on inviting speakers of substance, as opposed to those who seek merely to provoke.

Some wag might suggest that this “new culture of tolerance” means a good conservative is one who behaves the way progressives want. After all, what says “free speech” more than protocols, right? From the curiously named “ODUS” office at Princeton cited by Sachs.

Open Expression Monitors and Public Safety officers may attend various campus programs, meetings, and events where University policy on freedom of expression may be challenged. These neutral monitors are Princeton staff members who have been selected to uphold the University’s commitment to freedom of expression and ensure University guidelines governing free expression are followed. Open Expression Monitors and Public Safety officers uphold the rights of participants to express themselves in non-disruptive ways, safeguard the essential functioning of University operations, and protect members’ rights to hear, see, and engage with a speaker or listen to a lecture.

What says free speech more than “Open Expression Monitors”? But if this demonstration of dedication to free speech hasn’t convinced you that the crisis is over, consider a test: if a student walked across campus wearing a red MAGA hat, would he be invited to dinner? Okay, silly example since no student on campus would be so foolish as to rip a MAGA hat off a student’s head. That was so 2017. They’re much more tolerant now.

27 thoughts on “Crisis Averted or War Lost?

  1. Ross

    How dialogue has changed to be respectful:

    2017 “You are one stupid motherfucker, aren’t you?”
    2019 “It’s a shame you have to deal with the intelligence limiting effects of your mother’s apparent pre-natal drug and alcohol abuse. May I refer you to a suitable counselor who can help you realize your low potential for success?”

  2. Marc

    Different Jeffrey Sachs. This one is by Jeffrey A. Sachs, a political science prof at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, not the famous Columbia econ prof Jeffrey D. Sachs.

  3. RedditLaw

    “They made a desert and called it peace.” — Tacitus

    As far as there being fewer right-wing invitations to campus, remember that there are only so many Never-Trumpers from Conservative, Inc. available to come to campus and give tummy rubs to the students and reassure them that they also don’t like the bad orange man.

  4. Julia

    Isn’t it the same Acadia university who fired last year a tenured professor for “controversial” speech on social networks? And the same Jeffrey A Sachs who an year ago denied the crisis with articles like “The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth” (WaPo) and “Opinion: There Is No Free Speech Crisis”?

    The crisis which didn’t exist has ended. Never mind.

  5. Jake

    Anybody who allows disinvitations to campus parties and the howling protests of the antifa bullies dissuade them from freely expressing their genuinely held beliefs is a coward.

    Or the tankies funding their clumsy provocations decided it was a waste of money.

  6. Justin Wei

    Didn’t Dr. Megan Neely just get ousted from her position as the director of one of Duke’s School of Medicine’s Masters programs because she dared to suggest that people should improve their English skills by speaking English all the time? Mr. Sachs’s article seems to have been unfortunately timed. Then again, given the current climate on campuses it’s unlikely that a good time exists for such an article.

  7. Nigel Declan

    Speech Fuzz is a far better sounding – and likely more accurate – name than Open Expression Monitors to describe the forward patrols universities are kind enough to deploy to meetings and events where wrongspeak is at risk of occurring.

  8. B. McLeod

    I’m not seeing all that much “empiricism.” It’s a pretty shaky attempt at any kind of evidence-based analysis.

      1. Oskar

        Don’t you know that the plural of anecdote is data Scott?

        And you can ride the data train all the way to omniscience.

  9. Casual Lurker

    “Sachs proves his point using statistics…”

    “There are three types of lies: There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics!”

    — Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister (1874 – 1880)

  10. Casual Lurker

    Great story. Unfortunately, once again, it just demonstrates how any passionate idiot with the megaphone of Internet access can wreck havoc on just about anyone’s life.

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