Dan Kalb, an Oakland City Council member, is an ardent environmentalist and liberal politician. He was considered ideal to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on the environment . . . until students found out that Kalb is also a supporter of Israel. Kalb was reportedly disinvited this month by Natural Resources Professor Kurt Spreyer after students objected and threatened a protest.
More than 30 students signed a letter, which was shared on X that is a model of the Orwellian logic long used on campuses to silence conservatives and libertarians.
The students call Israel a “colonial and imperialist project” that “thrive[s] on the oppression and exploitation” of the Palestinians. After saying that they will not tolerate Kalb being heard on campus due to his support for Israel, they add that “it is not our intention to stifle diverse voices, but rather to ensure that the voices we engage with are grounded in a sincere commitment to knowledge and truth.”
The students wrote to Kalb: “Considering your active role in retweeting and spreading pro-Israeli propaganda . . . on social media, questions arise regarding the validity, legitimacy, and authenticity of your views in regard to the advocation of our community.”
It is not hard to see where these students have learned this absurd understanding of free speech. It is the same logic used for years by professors to rationalize the echo chamber on faculties and campuses. In “The Indispensable Right,” I discuss how academics are now leading an anti-free speech movement on campuses that challenges the centrality (or even the necessity) of free speech protections in higher education. Students have been taught to be leery of free speech arguments. Free speech is often portrayed as harmful or some views as inimical to higher education.
The lust of all tyrannies
Recently, we discussed an article titled “Dear Administrators: Enough with the Free Speech Rhetoric! It Concedes Too Much to the Right-Wing Agenda” by two Arizona State University professors — Richard Amesbury and Catherine O’Donnell. The authors wrote that free speech concerns yield too much to the “right wing” and that free speech should not be given the protection currently afforded by universities and colleges. Indeed, they argue that free speech may be harming higher education by fostering “unworthy” ideas.
In fairness, to the two professors, they do not reject the overall value of free speech and refer to free speech as among the important values to be balanced in the academic setting. While referring to free speech as “essential,” we clearly differ on what that means. They are less supportive of intellectual diversity in my view.
While many of us expressed disgust at the treatment of a federal judge shouted down by Stanford law students, Professor Jennifer Ruth wrote a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education heralding their actions. It is an extension of her book It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (with Penn State Music Professor Michael Bérubé) declaring certain views as advancing “theories of white supremacy” and thus having “no intellectual legitimacy whatsoever.” Once declared as harmful, it is no longer free speech and therefore worthy of censorship or cancellation. It is that easy.
Most recently, over 70 faculty members at the University of Utah signed a petition demanding that the university reinstate funding for a radical student group that disrupted events to prevent conservative and pro-Israel views from being heard on campus. The letter called for the “immediate reinstatement” of funding for Mecha de U of U.
The professors were not concerned with the group preventing others from being heard and instead objected that there is “a deeply troubling contradiction: the free speech of transphobic ideologues is protected by the university, while the free speech of students standing against the genocide of Palestinians is not.”
While Kalb reportedly said that Professor Spreyer did not agree with the students, he feared that his presence would be disruptive. The result is precisely what these students had hoped to achieve in getting the event cancelled due to the chilling effect of threatened protests. Rather than warning that any disruption of a class would be treated as a violation of the school code, the speaker was simply disinvited. Problem solved.
There is an irony for many in the free speech community to see the sudden concern over free speech by some on our campuses who have remained silent for years as conservative, libertarian, and dissenting faculty were attacked, cancelled, and fired.
For many, this is a monster of their own creation either due to their action or acquiescence in past years as a political orthodoxy took hold of higher education.
For more on free speech supression, see the Federal appellate court ruling Missouri v Biden