I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Campus Conservatives have become the new PC whiners

National Review published an article yesterday trumpeting the latest campus "free speech" controversy, in which conservative students play the role of tormented victims, complaining of terrible oppression simply because others disagree with their viewpoints. Written by Jason Mattera, the spokesman for Young America’s Foundation, the article details the plight of the Federalist Society students at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, who, Mattera believes, are being treated with profound unfairness after they distributed some fliers promoting a speech they arranged by an author affiliated with Mattera's organization.

Why does Mattera believe that these law students have been so gravely wronged? It is not because the conservative group has been banned from promoting the speech. Nor is it because the speech itself has been prohibited. And it is also not because the students were disciplined in any way, or even threatened with discipline, because of the flyers or the event.

Instead, their complaint is that the Dean of the law school, along with other students, have criticized -- disagreed with -- the ideas which the conservative group expressed when promoting the speech and with the ideas of the speaker herself. Listen to Mattera describe the crux of the complaint:

Dean Rudy Hasl responded to ads for a conservative speaker by issuing a mass e-mail decrying the lectures theme as "offensive" and "inappropriate."

Even worse, Mattera tells us that:

Conservatives there must stomach teachers excoriating Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and contend with professors quick to give Bush the middle finger.

Oh, the horrors. Contemplate the trauma and outright hostility which these conservative law students must have felt as a result of the Dean criticizing their fliers and their law professors speaking ill of Scalia and the President.

This campus "controversy," and similar ones being promoted by conservatives, illustrate a disturbing role-reversal driven by an increasingly strident mindset on the part of conservatives (students and professors alike) in academia. Legitimate complaints about free speech suppression at the hands of left-wing censors in academia have morphed into a petulant insistence that -- like their PC counterparts on the Left who preceded them -- they have the right not just to free expression of their opinion, but also the right to an environment that does not criticize, insult or offend them as a result of the opinions they express.

Campus conservatives now complain – loudly, shrilly and often – not just when they are prohibited from expressing their views, but also when their viewpoints are criticized or condemned, whether by other students, professors, or by academic administrators. In short, campus conservatives and the complaints they are manufacturing are now based upon the same noxious sense of entitlement to a criticism-free environment which the PC warriors on the left for so long demanded be accorded to them.

How ironic. And how pitiful. The political correctness movement in academia was borne of the toxic notion that students, and particularly minority students, were entitled to an environment devoid of ideas and opinions which were offensive to them. Leftist campus warriors demanded a ban on any opinions which made them feel that their environment was subjectively "hostile" to them, and insisted on punishment and even expulsion for anyone who exhibited "insensitivity" to their viewpoints.

The self-evident corruption of these demands became increasingly clear. The notion that academia, of all places, should be structured so as to prohibit ideas of any kind, let alone those ideas merely guilty of being "offensive" to some, was one of the most self-absorbed, dangerous, and just plain dumb arguments imaginable. If college and post-graduate students cannot bear to be exposed to ideas with which they vehemently disagree or which they find "offensive," the solution is for them to leave the institution and seek out a more comfortable environment (or grow a thicker skin), not for the institution to bar free inquiry and opinion -- the hallmarks of academia –- in order to make them feel better.

Conservatives in academia, who have and still do constitute a minority in most academic institutions, bravely and, for the most part, effectively fought against this institutional effort to suppress free thought. Conservative speakers are now common on even the most liberal campuses; conservative campus political groups are vibrant; and the most extreme left-wing efforts to suppress free speech have been sufficiently discredited and justifiably mocked so as to keep would-be censorious left-wing academic administrations largely (though not entirely) in check, at least insofar as it concerns the use of their institutional powers to actively suppress (as opposed to merely criticize or condemn) conservative views.

But having emerged substantially victorious in this battle to preserve their right to express their views free of punishment and suppression, conservatives in academia are now becoming the mirror image of exactly that which they have for so long condemned. Their complaints now center around and reflect an entitlement not just to speak freely, but to be free of criticism and condemnation when they do so.

This role-reversal is as transparent as it is disappointing. The most prominent such controversy in the last several years involved complaints by pro-Israeli students at Columbia University that certain Mid-East Studies professors were too pro-Arab and anti-Israeli, and as a result, the pro-Israeli students felt "harassed" and "intimidated" in the classroom. This led to all sorts of demands for discipline against the accused professors, and never-ending complaints from conservative students that they felt insufficiently respected. In demanding that more attention be paid to the oh-so-unfair treatment of these students, Jonathan Mark of Jewish Week summarized the victims’ complaints as follows:

In October, The New York Sun broke the news about a documentary film, "Unbecoming Columbia," that featured students and former students describing serial intimidation — verbal and academic — of pro-Zionist students, in and out of the classroom, by several Arab professors, mostly from the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture (MEALAC) department. The anti-Israel mood is not limited to that department. More than 100 faculty members, reports New York magazine, have signed Israeli divestment petitions.

Isn’t this exactly what conservatives (rightfully) mocked for so long – female, gay, and black students who complained of insensitivity, hostility, and even "intimidation," all because they were subjected to viewpoints with which they disagreed? The central rhetorical tactic of the PC complainers was to conflate disagreement with some sort of assault, so that the former could and should be regulated and even prohibited just as the latter is.

This is exactly the rhetoric which the coddled, whiny students on the Right and their enablers have now adopted. It is now deemed somehow unfair, even oppressive, if professors and academic administrators express views which conservative students find offensive and wrong. Criticism of conservative students by professors, administrators and even other students is deemed to be harassment and intimidation, and cries for help then follow.

There should be no doubt that the Federalist Society law students at Thomas Jefferson had very hurt feelings when they learned that the Dean of their law school condemned the ideas of the speaker they had invited. But as conservatives persuasively preached for so long, one is not entitled -- especially in an academic setting -- to be shielded from ideas which may be "hurtful" or with which one disagrees. And, notwithstanding Mattera's cries of censorship on behalf of these poor Federalist Society members, having others disagree with your opinions is not evidence that you are a free-speech victim needing protection.

To the contrary, if campus conservatives are free to express their ideas and others are free to criticize them, even vigorously, that is exactly the state of affairs for which proponent of campus free speech should be striving. Equating disagreement with oppression is no more appealing coming from the Right than it was when it came from the Left.

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