In Boston last week, I happened to spot the lanky figure of veteran human rights activist Kenneth Roth on the campus of Harvard University. Nothing strange about that, one might think. Roth led the advocacy group Human Rights Watch for many years, with great success, and seems a rather natural fit for the hallowed halls of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) of government.
Last month, however, his scholarship proposal to HKS was controversially turned down, a decision Roth blamed on “donor-led censorship” stemming from his earlier criticism of human rights abuses. man by Israel. This was denied by Harvard, but that did not prevent an outcry over the incident. In the ensuing fallout, the HKS Dean reversed the decision and apologized, saying “the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the school’s mission and our commitment to open discussion.”
All parties now seem eager to move on. But the incident symbolizes a larger trend: the extent to which American education is mired in the issue of free speech. This is now so widespread that it is not easy to minimize it. And it has become a touchstone for a vocal minority on both the left and right of politics.
Last month, a different furor erupted at Stanford, after two students were spotted reading Mein Kampf, and it briefly looked like they might be punished for it. Another protest erupted after a professor was fired at Hamline University in Minnesota for displaying a photo of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on Islamic art.
Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and likely Republican presidential candidate, is apparently so convinced that free speech is being suppressed that he has launched an attempted takeover of a small arts college. liberals in the state as part of its “War on Revival”. ”. “It’s a powder keg,” says a Yale professor who has witnessed free speech protests and counter-protests.
All very depressing. But if you want to feel even more alarmed, consider what is happening less visibly, earlier in the educational pipeline, in American schools. According to PEN America, the advocate for literary freedom of expression, in the 2021-22 school year, there were more than 2,500 book bans in different school districts and libraries across the United States, significantly more than ‘previously.
The 138 school districts were located in 32 states and covered about four million students, but the largest concentration was in the Republican strongholds of Texas and Florida. The targeted books were, according to PEN, mostly “authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors, women. . .[or] on racism, sexuality, gender, history”.
Some are household names: The bluest eye by Toni Morrison The kite runner by Khaled Hosseini and looking for alaska by John Green, whose Blame it on our stars is one of the best-selling books of all time. by Aldous Huxley The best of worlds also made the list.
An optimist might note that these local restrictions reflect the glory of the American federal structure, which gives parents a great deal of power over their children’s education and the free expression of faith. (Plus, kids who want to read these books can still buy them online).
What is remarkable is the extent to which these prohibitions are proliferating and becoming almost normalized, given that the US constitution is supposed to uphold the concept of free speech. “As a defender [of free speech] who has championed American leadership on free speech issues around the world, I barely recognize my own country,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel told Congress recently.
With figures such as DeSantis supporting book bans, the trend looks likely to intensify. Is there a solution? Since 2016, the University of Chicago has championed free speech, telling students it won’t endorse intellectual “safe spaces.” (The university has a rich tradition of conservative philosophical and legal scholarship.) Unfortunately, few others have copied this approach, which I believe is the right one.
Nossel, meanwhile, says that while PEN was primarily focused on places like China and Russia, “we find ourselves putting more and more energy into defending free speech in America as well.”
The battle for intellectual freedom has delivered some successes, as with Roth. But it underscores how fragile free speech is in an increasingly tribal and polarized political landscape. That’s alarming, especially with an election looming in which DeSantis looks set to run.
Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and send him an e-mail at [email protected]
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