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Censorship on campus?

By Onkar Ghate
web posted September 9, 2002

The terrorist attacks of September 11, according to many college professors, have claimed another victim: free speech on campus. They contend that a chilling climate has arisen, in which they hesitate to voice ideas critical of America for fear of reprimand by university officials.

At the University of Texas, for instance, when the administration criticized a professor for accusing America of terrorism, his colleague described the faculty's reaction: "There was a very clear message that if you stick your neck out, [the administration] will disown you." Blaming a nationwide climate, the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said a "distrust of intellectuals has always lurked beneath the surface of American popular opinion. Now it has begun to leak out again." AAUP's director of public policy claims there "are some things here that harken back to McCarthyism."

We must, the professors insist, return to the day when a professor could express any view, no matter how unpopular. But in reality the professors are concerned not with defending free speech--but with retaining control over the universities.

Freedom of speech is an individual's right to express ideas without coercive interference from the government. Free speech does protect an individual who voices unpopular ideas, but it does not require that others support him. If an individual wants others to finance the expression of his ideas, he must seek their voluntary agreement. To force another person to support ideas he opposes violates his freedom of speech.

A journalist, for instance, has the freedom to write what he pleases but has no right to demand that Time magazine publish it. That decision belongs to the head of Time. Similarly, a professor has the freedom to teach any view he wishes but has no right to demand that Harvard employ him. That decision belongs to the head (or governing body) of Harvard. Freedom of speech is not the right of a Ph.D. to have others provide him with a university classroom.

Yet that is precisely what these professors are demanding.

They maintain that no matter how much the trustees of a university disagree with a professor's views, they should not be able to fire him. The owners of a university are to be stripped of their right to choose which ideas their wealth supports. Why? So that professors who consistently teach the evil of individualism, capitalism, the profit motive--and America--can espouse their views without the burden of having to seek the voluntary consent of those forced to sponsor them.

Under the guise of championing free speech, therefore, these leftist professors are actually demanding its destruction (which is consistent with their advocacy of speech codes and "sensitivity training" on campuses).

What makes them think they can get away with this?

Most universities today are public institutions. Critics of the academic left have been calling for the firing of professors who broadcast anti-American ideas, since such views are odious to most taxpayers. But subjecting speech to majority rule, the left correctly argues, obliterates freedom of speech. Thus, it concludes, we must leave college professors alone.

This is a false conclusion. The truth is that public education as such is antithetical to free speech. Whether leftists are forced to pay taxes to fund universities from which their academic spokesmen are barred, or non-leftists are forced to pay taxes to fund professors who condemn America as a terrorist nation, someone loses the right to choose which ideas his money supports.

To protect free speech, therefore, universities would have to be privatized. The owners of a university could then hire the faculty they endorsed, while others could refuse to fund the university if they disagreed with its teachings. But since privatization would threaten the left's grip on the universities, it vehemently opposes this solution. In the name of free speech, the left denounces as "tyranny of the almighty dollar" the sole means of actually preserving free speech.

So we must not be fooled by the professors' cries about threats to their freedom of speech. Freedom is precisely what they don't want. Their grumblings are simply smokescreens to prevent us from seeing that we are right in objecting to being forced to finance their loathsome ideas.

Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a resident fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send comments to reaction@aynrand.org.

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