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When Justice Clarence Thomas recently withdrew from the class he’d been teaching at the George Washington University Law School, it was just the latest example of the poisonous atmosphere in academia that makes it impossible to have a free exchange of ideas. GW administrators had admirably stood up to the mob demanding he be canceled for his vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, citing academic-freedom guidelines that don’t shield students from “ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Still, the justice presumably figured it wasn’t worth the aggravation and heightened security that appearing on campus would require.
It’s a shame that Thomas felt the need to withdraw — and a stark concentration to the announcement that the newly retired Justice Stephen Breyer would be teaching a class at Harvard this fall. That’s a shameless double standard that university officials are allowing to spread: free speech for me, but not for thee.
I know a little something about this, having faced my own attempted cancellation over a tweet criticizing President Joe Biden’s restriction of his pool of Supreme Court candidates by race and sex. After a four-month “investigation,” Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor ultimately cleared me on the technicality that I wasn’t an employee when I tweeted. But he allowed the diversity inquisitors to repeal the school speech-and-expression policy, setting me (and every other faculty member) up for discipline at the next transgression of progressive orthodoxy. Instead of participating in that slow-motion firing, I resigned.
Along the way, I also faced the shutdown of an event at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Student disrupters wouldn’t allow it, chanting and banging as if it were Occupy Wall Street. It’s the first time I’d ever been protested in more than a thousand speaking events — and nobody was punished, despite the facial violation of school policy that a dean reiterated mid-disruption and that the chancellor reiterated the next day.
My experience was no isolated incident — not even for March 2022! A similar thing happened at Yale, ironically during a panel bringing together lawyers from the left and right to explain the importance of free speech. Dean Heather Gerken basically buried her head in the sand. Then it happened again at the University of Michigan, when students obstructed a debate on Texas’s heartbeat bill. At least there, the deans read student leaders the riot act, which allowed my own event — changed to a discussion on civility with a professor with whom I agree on little else — to proceed unmolested the following week.
The only thing these events had in common was that non-progressive speakers were presenting ideas that some students didn’t like. We’ve gotten to a place where questioning racial preferences or abortion is outside the academic Overton window, the acceptable range of policy views. And remember that all these shutdowns were perpetrated by the next generation of lawyers, who’ll face much more challenging situations in their careers than speakers they find objectionable.
In February, I jokingly tweeted at Whoopi Goldberg, who had a minor kerfuffle over Holocaust ignorance, that she and I ought to go on Joe Rogan’s podcast to hash stuff out. Indeed, I’m willing to go anywhere — Bill Maher are you reading this? — to debate constitutional law or the importance of civil discourse. But all too few law school deans take me up on it.
Perhaps we’ve passed “peak woke” in society writ large, as normal people, concerned with their families and livelihoods rather than performative virtue-signaling, call bull—- on the “men can get pregnant” crowd. The pandemic showed a lot of parents the faddish theories their kids were being taught in school, and they didn’t like it.
But I’m pessimistic about academia. Free speech just isn’t supported in many schools. Rules against hecklers’ vetoes aren’t enforced. Too few administrators follow the example of then-University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, who, in response to pressure to punish Prof. Dorian Abbot for writings that criticized affirmative action, reaffirmed a commitment to faculty members’ freedom to “disagree with any policy or approach of the University.”
The problem isn’t that deans like Treanor and Gerken are radicals. It’s that they’re spineless cowards who are unwilling to confront the illiberal inmates who have taken over their institutions — including as fellow administrators in burgeoning DEI offices. Mere statements about academic freedom and declining to fire Supreme Court justices aren’t enough; schools have to affirmatively instill a culture of respect for opposing views and civil discourse.
I’m not holding my breath.