Home News Opinion | ‘Bad Apples’ or Systemic Issues?

Opinion | ‘Bad Apples’ or Systemic Issues?


Yes, this is in part a consequence of anti-intellectual strains on the right and among right-wing media. And this conservative mistrust of higher education (and secondary education) is causing it to turn its back on free speech and instead resort to punitive legislation, such as Florida’s recently passed “Stop Woke Act,” which a federal court called “positively dystopian” and unconstitutionally “bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints.”

But that’s not the whole story. The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — of which, full disclosure, I was once president — has tracked over 900 incidents since 2001 where scholars were targeted for termination or other penalties for speech that was protected by the First Amendment or by conventional principles of academic freedom. In 2021 alone there were 111 attempts to penalize professors for their speech, and almost 70 percent of those attacks came from the left.

I spent years litigating campus free speech in court. It was frustrating to file successful case after successful case — often challenging policies that existed in campuses across the country — only to be told time and again that there was no systemic problem with free expression on campus, that these were merely isolated incidents or a product of youthful overenthusiasm, of kids being kids.

No one should pretend for a moment that there is any kind of moral equivalence between university censorship and fatal police violence. The stakes on the streets are infinitely higher than the stakes in the classroom. But there is still a common problem: Our repeated assumptions that those on our team might make mistakes or overstep, but those on the other team are deliberately malevolent.

I should know. I used to fit that partisan mold. As a conservative, I could clearly see the problems in American universities. After all, it was my tribe that disproportionately faced penalties and discipline. When it came to the police, however, I was skeptical. I knew there were some bad apples. But was there a systemic problem? I was doubtful.

I have since changed my mind, but it took shedding my partisanship and applying my principles to allow me to see more clearly. Fundamental to my worldview is the belief that human beings possess incalculable worth, but that we are also deeply flawed. No person or institution can be completely trusted.

Thus powerful people and powerful institutions must be held accountable. If you combine authority with impunity, then corruption and injustice will be the inevitable result. If I could see this reality clearly in institutions on the left, why couldn’t I see it on the right?

You may also like