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Fighting for free speech

| Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
A fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos in February burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus. (AP Photo)
A fire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos in February burns on Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus. (AP Photo)

As the academic year gets underway on many campuses, it's a good time to ask: What's the purpose of school? Is it education or indoctrination?

More and more, sadly, it's the latter. We like to think of our universities in picturesque terms — bastions of open learning and scholarly debate where one pursues truth, no matter where the search may lead. Today, this Norman Rockwell vision is sheer fantasy on many campuses.

Those who dare to air a view that flouts the politically correct line on hot-button topics such as race, marriage and immigration are virtually taking their lives into their hands. They aren't met with spirited disagreement. No, they're shouted down. They're threatened. They're attacked by shrieking mobs.

Debate is out. Denigration is in.

It's not just the violent protests that have erupted at, say, the University of California at Berkeley over Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro that should concern us. It's the growing list of speakers who are uninvited. It's the professors who censor themselves to avoid the wrath of the PC thugs.

The problem has grown so bad that last fall, John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, felt it necessary to write a letter to incoming freshmen putting them on notice that the school was bucking the trend.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison wrote.

Imagine — a major university reaffirming a commitment to academic freedom. But that's the state of so-called “higher education” today, when many colleges have become little more than outrageously overpriced day-care centers.

Small wonder that the real travesty is how ill-equipped these students will be to defend their beliefs once they've exited the warm confines of their protective bubbles. They resemble not trained thinkers, but hothouse orchids unable to withstand the cold breeze of opposition.

This represents a complete inversion of the original purpose of a university. The stifling cloud of political correctness that envelops so many schools turns students not into independent, well-trained thinkers, but into sponges who mindlessly absorb whatever propaganda they're fed.

Ultimately, this affects all of us.

“When universities suppress speech, they not only damage freedom today, they establish and push norms harmful to democracy going forward,” writes Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “These restrictions may cause and exacerbate the political polarization that is so widely lamented in our society.”

Hats off, then, to Princeton professor Robbie George and Harvard professor Cornel West, who recently put their differences aside to issue a helpful joint statement. “All of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views,” they write. “And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree.”

Let's hope more college officials join those who have begun to question the left's death grip on academia — and fight to restore free speech to our nation's campuses.

Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation.

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