Loss of Freedom of Speech in Universities

Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.
(Investigator 176, 2017 September)

The Academic Freedom bill of Rights proposed in various American states and several other countries is sorely needed to remedy the loss of freedom existing in many colleges and universities. Most young people today look forward to attending college. Few, though, are aware of the new trends at universities that have resulted from the politically correct movement. Since I have been a professor at various colleges and universities for over forty years now, I am very attuned to issues related to the academic environment.  
A major problem now is abridgement of basic human rights, especially freedom of speech, as part of the political correctness movement now epidemic at universities. The historical attempts by universities to block the freedom of speech of professors have been well documented, but never before have they been so blatant as recently. Colleges have even established what are called "free speech zones," and only in these places is freedom of speech allowed!
Both a classic and typical example is the case of University of New Hampshire sophomore Timothy Garneau. On September 3 of 2000, 17 years ago now, Garneau posted flyers in the elevator of Stoke Hall Dormitory, making light of common frustrations that students experience in riding elevators. The crowdedness and slowness problems are complicated by the fact that, instead of taking the stairs, many students take the elevator to go up only one or two floors.  
The hastily produced flyer, corrected for grammar, read, "nine out of ten freshmen girls gain ten to fifteen pounds. But there is something you can do about it. If you live below the sixth floor, take the stairs. Not only will you feel better, but you will also be saving time and will look better." This comment was deemed by some to be both "sexist" and "discriminatory" toward obese people, one of the latest of many "victims" in our society that the government has ruled deserving of special rights.  
Tempers flared, and Garneau was confronted — fearful that he would be severely punished for his free speech expression, a fear that turned out to be valid. He at first denied his involvement, but was eventually forced to admit his serious mistake. Charged with violation of "affirmative action" policies, harassment, and "conduct which (sic) is disorderly and lewd," Garneau was expelled from student housing, given extended disciplinary probation, required to meet with a psychologist to discuss "his problem," required to write a three-thousand-word reflection paper, and to publish an apology in the newspaper. Forced out of student housing, he was then compelled to live in his 1994 Ford Contour for three weeks.    
Garneau appealed his punishment and lost. He then contacted several attorneys. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took his case, claiming that the university violated his constitutionally protected free speech and association rights. FIRE attorneys concluded that the university and their representatives had no business investigating constitutionally protected free speech in the first place.  

Thanks to FIRE and their aggressive stand against the university (and FIRE's long record for winning scores of similar cases when universities attempt to deny free speech as they often do nowadays), Garneau was eventually allowed to move back into a dormitory, but a different dormitory because it was deemed that someone so insensitive to the "rights of minorities" must be relocated.
Ironically, many universities tend to ignore behavior that many of us common folk regard as inappropriate — such as foul language or sexual immorality, and focus on what most people regard as trivial. My guess is, after this experience, Mr. Garneau will be a shy and quiet young man, afraid to say almost anything to almost everybody, at least around a university. All because of an "offensive" flyer. Some have sarcastically commented that it seems that we should all gain a hundred pounds so that we can join a specially government protected class and achieve the now respected label of victim.  
Of course, we would then be in a high health risk category, but that is another story. The problem is so great that the President of the Study of Popular Culture, David Horowitz, has drafted a bill titled "Academic Bill of Rights" to protect the basic constitutional rights of students and faculty. While not a perfect bill, I believe that it will go a long way to insure that the freedom most Americans take for granted in our daily life will also exist in our colleges. Unfortunately, since this 16-year-old case, things have only gotten worse, much worse, at least in America today.
Dr. Jim Nelson Black in his book Freefall of the American University: How Our Colleges are Corrupting the Minds and Morals of the Next Generation, said a major problem now is "faculty members take great pains to exclude not just conservative ideas but also religion" from the college environment (p. 230). The substance of his concern is that students are not allowed to "articulate a point of view that might be considered by another party as exclusivist." Black argues that the liberal view concludes that "we have no grounds for determining what is true; therefore, any claim to truth must be discounted and disavowed. This means, of course, that religious beliefs which rely on revelation and absolute standards of truth, have no home in the academy."  
In an article for the Harvard Crimson, Halvorson expressed the same concern, namely that "bias against conservative religious beliefs on campus, and particularly the bias against any view that does not support the reigning Darwinian orthodoxy" is a major problem. In his critique, Halvorson said, "intellectual honesty requires rationally examining our fundamental premises — yet expressing hesitation about Darwin is considered irretrievable intellectual suicide, the unthinkable doubt, the unpardonable sin of academia" (2003, p. 4).
He went on to conclude that, "Although the postmodern era questions everything else — the possibility of knowledge, basic morality, and reality itself — critical discussion of Darwin is taboo. ...the basic premise of evolution remains a scientific Holy of Holies, despite our absurd skepticism in other areas." The university, which has made a fetish of skewering sacred cows, is now in the position of giving what Black calls "an unproven theory of origins by uncertain nineteenth-century students of natural history the status of Holy Writ. The modern university has no religion but Darwinism." Harvard's Halvorson concluded that, "We must reject intellectual excommunication as a valid form of dealing with criticism: the most important question for any society to ask is the one that is forbidden." Amen! In a study done before the 2016 elections five people were interviewed. One,

Kaylee, a structural biologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, stays quiet when her colleagues talk about politics and religion. As a Catholic with conservative tendencies, she feels that her beliefs are unwelcome in academic institutions, where liberal views often prevail. The strain is particularly acute this year: Kaylee favors Donald Trump for US president (Reardon, 2016, p. 298).

The problem she feared, with good reason, that "supporting Trump could harm her job prospects." (For this reason, Kaylee — a postdoc — asked Nature to refer to her by a pseudonym. Her fears do not surprise Colby College (Waterville, Maine) sociologist Neil Gross because surveys have documented

that conservative faculty members are a minority in US universities, although the proportion varies by field. "My sense is that the candidacy of Donald Trump has really intensified disputes that were there already in academic life," Gross says. "If Republicans in academia and science felt uncomfortable before, I think the candidacy of Mr. Trump has made them all the more uncomfortable" (Reardon, 2016, p. 298).

Another scientist believes "'The current status quo seems like it's not working for a lot of Americans,' says one Trump-supporting chemist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who asked for anonymity. 'I'm hopeful for a modest improvement, and that's about as much as I can hope'" (Reardon, 2016, p. 299). In short, as the 8 November election drew near

talk of the hard-fought presidential race grows trickier to escape. Some scientists who support Trump worry that political discussions in the lab will not only harm their careers in the long term, but also hinder current collaborations with colleagues, and waste time (Reardon, 2016, p. 299).


Halvorson, Richard. 2003. "Confessions of a Skeptic." The Harvard Crimson, April. 7, p. 4.

Reardon, Sara. 2016. The scientists who support Donald Trump Science policy fades into background for many who back Republican candidate in US presidential race. Nature.  298(538):298-299.


Comment on Jerry Bergman, 'Loss of Freedom of Speech
in Universities', Investigator Magazine 176, pp 44-48

Mark Newbrook

(Investigator 177, 2017 November)

I agree strongly with Bergman that it is most important to promote and protect freedom of speech, in universities in particular.  Only in special cases, all of which must be fully justified, can exceptions be made to this principle. There is no right to enforce the suppression of views with which one disagrees, or of criticisms of one's own views, merely because one is unsettled or offended by alternative views.

There are, however, a few points to be made here. The most striking point is that some of the views discussed by Bergman (such as alternatives to evolutionary theory) are suppressed to various degrees by established mainstream academics, who are typically 'modernists' (inspired by the 17th-18th Century 'Enlightenment') and in some cases active 'skeptics', and are almost all sincerely concerned with respect for the truth (which may be complex but must be coherent) and with 'hard' standards of evidence and argumentation; while others (such as traditional ideas which are now often deemed sexist or racist, arguably unfairly) are suppressed by younger scholars, younger university administrators and student bodies, especially those representing 'minority' or hitherto disadvantaged groups and their ideas.  These latter are often 'postmodernists' or even relativists, ostensibly concerned with 'affirmative action', with 'diversity', and with the (prima facie odd) idea that all opinions on a topic are equally valid and worthy of respect, regardless of the differing degrees of relevant knowledge and experience of those upholding them – although they then often contradict this position by endorsing their own 'politically correct' and/or culture-specific (sometimes traditional/pre-scientific) viewpoints as superior!  With the increasing foregrounding of the notion of 'triggering', many members of these groups have been persuaded to see themselves as needing protection from any hint of beliefs or attitudes at variance with their own.  Richard Dawkins has justifiably described this as the infantilising of the student body, and other scholars have also attacked this development (see for instance Claire Fox in I Find That Offensive!, Mike Hume in Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? and Jim Nelson Black as cited by Bergman.

It should be emphasised here that mainstream scientists, historians etc. would not endorse the relativist idea (mentioned by Black) that 'we have no grounds for determining what is true'.  If this were accepted, the scientific enterprise would grind to a halt; scientists in particular cannot afford to be relativists. Of course, all scientific findings about the truth are provisional (although some are unlikely in the extreme to be overturned). There are no 'absolute standards of truth' in science as there are – in the minds of believers – in religion.  What philosophically sophisticated scientists might say is (a) that in the domain of religion –  despite the claims made by believers to the effect that they are in possession of absolute truths – the basis for arriving at truth (even provisionally) is in fact much less secure, and we have no reliable grounds for determining what is true (the various 'revealed' religions disagree, often strongly, with each other, and there appears to be no reliable means of choosing between them), and (b) that it is therefore illegitimate to teach religious doctrines as simply factual – or (c) to teach theories in scientific domains which are derived very largely from religious ideas.  (Classes in comparative religion, in the philosophy of religion and indeed in theology are of course fully acceptable.)  See also below.

Thus, those scholars in universities who challenge the status of anti-evolutionary ideas and those relativists (etc.) who challenge 'non-politically-correct' notions form two separate sets of thinkers, with little overlap. This contrast is obscured by Black, who personally regards evolutionary theory as 'unproven' and as similar in status to a religion (a rival to revealed religions) – even though the figure of God, central to religions proper, is either rejected or at least marginalised in this specific context by most evolutionists.

It is discouraging to find that thinkers who differ so deeply from each other as do most members of these two sets (and have clashed repeatedly – one thinks of the battles between mainstream historians such as Mary Lefkowitz and various 'Afrocentrist' thinkers obsessed with 'diversity' and the need to combat 'white supremacism') can nevertheless be perceived as sharing this tendency to suppress rival views. Bergman himself does not make this point, partly because he, like Black, ignores the separation between modernist scientists and other mainstream scholars on the one hand and 'trendy' postmodernists on the other.

Bergman's inclusion of both types of issue in his article also seems to involve the fact that those who now encounter hostility on both fronts include, very saliently, traditional, conservative Christians. In the United States, where in recent times Christianity has been much more important in public life than in the rest of 'the West', and where belief in creationist interpretations of Genesis remains strong, there is a much higher-profile opposition between conservative believers and 'materialist' scientists and philosophers than there is in other 'Western' countries, where many, perhaps most believers cheerfully accept evolution and where atheists and agnostics combined are now often in the majority or at least are numerous and confidently assertive about their views. And in 'the West' as a whole there is also an opposition between conservative Christians and traditionally-minded people more generally on the one hand and, on the other, the too-easily-upset, often shrill postmodernist advocates of iconoclasm (instantiated by the recent calls for the removal of images of historical figures now deemed racist or otherwise unacceptable), of the setting-up of 'safe spaces' where their views (though not traditional Christian views!) are immune from challenge (see above), and of the suppression of much ostensibly harmless material (as exemplified by Bergman with the Garneau case) and of conservative Christian opinions about, for instance, homosexuality.

'Card-carrying skeptics' such as me will agree with Bergman in opposing the suppression of conservative Christian views – even though most of us disagree with those views, do not want any laws to be grounded in them, and reserve the right to express our own contrary views (another manifestation of free speech).
As far as evolution, specifically, is concerned: I know from my contact in the skeptical world with mainstream biologists, geologists and other scientists that almost all such scholars are genuinely persuaded that the evidence for evolution is very strong, and that there is currently no rival scientifically respectable theory of the development of life on Earth. (If they are in fact mistaken on these fronts, they are honestly mistaken, not mendacious.) They seek to exclude the anti-evolutionist positions with which they have been confronted from science classes because they consider that these positions are not even scientific theories with weaker evidential or argumentational support than evolution but are in fact not scientific theories at all (because, for example, they make no testable predictions). (I am leaving out of consideration here any overtly religious elements in these anti-evolutionist positions. In so far as these positions are religious in character, scientists will surely have no objection to their being taught in religion classes, as long as they are not presented there as scientifically-grounded.) They would hold that those who want to see anti-evolutionist theories taught as alternatives in science classes, or even taught instead of evolution (as is now happening in Turkey, where conservative Islam is on the rise), should furnish genuinely strong scientific evidence and argumentation.  

If this occurs, or if novel scientifically respectable anti-evolutionist theories are developed, scientists should obviously include such theories in their curriculums as alternatives to evolution.  If they fail to do so, or if their view that existing anti-evolutionist theories are non-scientific is shown to be mistaken (maybe through bias), they will be at fault. And they are certainly at fault if they exclude on principle any expression of disagreement with evolutionary ideas, as if evolutionary theory had a special, unchallengeable status, or indeed if they identify any other specific theory or principle as immune from criticism – as some suggest occurs in connection with the theory of anthropogenic global warming or with the Nazi Holocaust (the truth of which cannot in fact be legally denied in some countries).  'Good skeptics' will fight against any such tendency. But in a science class the onus must be upon those who reject a theory which is generally considered to be very well established to provide sound scientific (or philosophical) objections to it – not merely contrary opinion, especially if grounded in religious doctrine or interpretations thereof.

PS: The varying meanings/uses of the word liberal, used here by Bergman in its American sense, are of interest; they generate some confusion. In the United States, liberal is close in meaning to radical; those referred to as liberals are left-wing, postmodernist, etc. and are mostly not especially interested in individual freedom. In the United Kingdom, there are two distinct meanings of the word, involving (a) the '19th Century liberalism' or libertarianism of the Whigs, John Stuart Mill, the Libertarian Party in the United States, etc. and (b) the liberalism of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats), which involves much higher levels of state regulation than a Whig could accept and in some ways resembles right-wing Labour Party thought (even though the Liberals were once described by a Labour Prime Minister as 'watered-down Tories'!). And in Australia the main right-of-centre party, corresponding with the British Conservative/'Tory' Party, is of course called the Liberal Party!

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