Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis

Last weekend, while Vice-President and former Indiana governor Mike Pence was giving the commencement address at Notre Dame University, over 100 students walked out in protest over his anti-LGBTQ and anti-refugee policy positions. Pence used this opportunity to give a 15-minute lecture about free speech on campuses, condemning what he calls “speech codes, safe spaces, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness—all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.” In contrast, he extolled the virtues of civility, open debate, the pursuit of knowledge, and the free exchange of ideas. Pence’s arguments, which sound lofty and noble, conceal as much as they reveal about the role of free speech in educational contexts today.

Much has been written in the past several months about dramatic conflicts at universities, especially those between protesters and high-profile far right figures like Ann CoulterMilo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer, bringing the issue of student activism and free speech to the forefront. While the recent focus has been on these so-called “alt right” celebrities and the growing role of groups like the Young America’s Foundation (YAF), there is a much longer history of conservative speakers being invited to campuses under the banner of free speech. Here I examine the groundwork laid by the Federalist Society, a long-standing legal organization which has been sending reactionary…

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