A specter is haunting American academia — a specter that is stifling academic freedom. Virtually every day, some campus around the country confronts a new challenge to freedom of thought. Unfortunately, many on college campuses appear to be turning their backs on free speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

Institutions of higher education face a serious, immediate, and, I believe, existential threat. The threat is subtle and insidious — it is anti-freedom, anti-education and anti-intellectual.

Especially worrisome is that this threat is coming not from outside forces, but rather from within universities. Faculty members sometimes drive it. Administrators occasionally are behind it. Even worse, students often lead the charge to exclude ideas from their campuses.

Let me be clear — without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, an institution of higher education ceases to function as such. No college is doing its job if it is not committed to allowing and encouraging the exchange of differing ideas.

Protestors force speech cancellations

In the spring of 2017, students at Claremont McKenna College prevented most of the audience from attending a lecture by Heather MacDonald. Her purported perfidy? Publishing a book called War on Cops, which criticized the heavy scrutiny surrounding police shootings. Afraid it would be dangerous to remove the protestors, school officials instead had the talk go on in an essentially empty room while live-streaming it elsewhere.

A month earlier, students and others at Middlebury College prevented controversial social scientist Charles Murray from speaking on campus. Middlebury tried the live-streaming alternative, too, with professor Allison Stanger interviewing Murray. Afterwards, protestors physically assaulted the group, resulting in a hospital visit for Stanger, who reportedly sustained a neck injury and a concussion.

It happened again just a year ago at William & Mary. A dozen protestors successfully shut down a speech by the ACLU of Virginia executive director. Her topic, ironically, was college students’ First Amendment rights. This small group marched to the front of the auditorium, chanting loudly, “A-C-L-U, you protect Hitler, too.” The speech was canceled.

Should supporters of Israel be barred from speaking on campus? Should pro-Donald Trump speech be limited? Should anti-Donald Trump speech be curtailed? Of course not.

And, lest anyone think this issue affects only one side of the political spectrum, the same institution that disinvited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from speaking at commencement more recently took steps to sanction a tenured professor for perceived left-wing rants on his private Facebook page.

SCOTUS: America ‘deeply committed’ to academic freedom

These kinds of actions hit at the very core of what college is all about. After all, without a strong, vital commitment to free and open inquiry, an institution of higher education is no longer doing what it is supposed to do.

The 1940 American Association of University Professors Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states:

Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results (and) to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject (…)

Though voluntary, these standards apply to virtually all institutions of higher education. But unlike private schools, public institutions are also governed by the First Amendment and its state constitutional counterparts.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the academic mission of a university is “a special concern of the First Amendment”. “Our Nation,” the Court says, “is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom[.]” Moreover, academic freedom “is of transcendent value to all of us, and not merely to the teachers concerned.”

The institutions of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education must be committed to free and open inquiry in all matters. As encouraged in the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression, Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities must support the right of members of the institution’s community to have the broadest possible latitude to speak, to write, to listen, to challenge and to learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of an institution of higher education, Oklahoma’s colleges and universities must fully respect and support the freedom of all members of their respective communities to discuss any problem that presents itself.

Stand firm for academic freedom

Freedom of expression lies at the very core of our system of higher education. The ideas of different members of a college community may conflict, but it is not the proper role of a university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. To be sure, our institutions should greatly value civility.

Today’s college students are tomorrow’s leaders, and I, for one, want our future leaders to be respectful of others. I also want them to be humble enough to hear differing ideas, to evaluate them, to distinguish good ideas from bad ones, to defend the good, and to reject the bad. But they will not be able to do so in the real world by babbling blathering banalities in the face of challenging thoughts. Concerns about civility, though important, can never justify closing off discussion of ideas.

Members of a college community are free to criticize and to contest speakers and views expressed on campus. But they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, each institution has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Make no mistake about it, academic freedom is under attack. And an attack on academic freedom is a direct attack on the academy itself. This is a battle we cannot lose. For if we lose academic freedom, we lose the university.

It does not matter if you are liberal or conservative, rural or urban, Democrat or Republican, religious, irreligious, or even anti-religious. If you value higher education, stand firm for free speech and academic freedom.