There is widespread concern about free speech in higher education. A local remedy is UNC’s  School of Civic Life and Leadership initiative, a way to stimulate free inquiry without firing indoctrinated faculty. But how did this censorious academic environment arise in the first place?   

By now everyone has heard of the fracas at Stanford Law School. Federal Judge Kyle Duncan was invited by the Stanford Federalist Society to give a speech on March 9. Early that day, students were alerted to the event by a long email from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Dean Tirien Steinbach. She assured the students that “SLS is particularly invested in upholding First Amendment principles…[but] has a responsibility to seriously consider the danger of actions that have the potential to chill speech.” [emphasis added] 

At the meeting Judge Duncan was heckled into inaudibility, and when he called on SLS staff for help, Ms. Steinbach launched into a six-minute prepared speech. The speech empathized with the hecklers and emphasized “belonging” and other DEI bromides. But what caught my attention was this: she said that students believe his judicial opinions and previous advocacy “land as absolute disenfranchisement of their rights.” 

Pundit Tucker Carlson has called Ms. Steinbach “stupid,” but stupid is one thing she is not. Both her email and her speech are artful in the extreme. Every word elicits a nod of assent.  Consider the word “land” in the quote. Speech is likened to a missile, a missile that has (no surprise) a harmful effect. The recipient, just like a missile victim, has no role whatsoever. Clearly speech can equal violence, and the speaker bears total responsibility for any effects it has on them.  

A university, a law school especially, is supposed to train students to look at facts dispassionately. An attorney should provide an able defense even for a despicable client. The woke revolution on our campuses shows that universities are failing in this elementary responsibility.  

But it is at least as likely that faculty are not failing but actively encouraging students to favor emotion over reason, to believe that “speech is violence” — to be “woke” rather than objective. I think so, and here is another example.   

Lisa Feldman Barrett is professor of psychology at Northeastern University and was president of the Association for Psychological Science in 2019-2020. In 2017 she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, “When is speech violence?” The piece attempted to use animal models and speculations about brain activity to prove her case. I think she was unsuccessful. But she was successful in training her students to close their minds to positions with which they disagree.   

In her op-ed, she wrote: 

Early in my career, I taught a course that covered the eugenics movement, which advocated the selective breeding of humans. Eugenics, in its time, became a scientific justification for racism. To help my students understand this ugly part of scientific history, I assigned them to debate its pros and cons. The students refused. [emphasis added] 

In fact, eugenics was a political not a scientific movement. It was advocated by elites on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from famous economist John Maynard Keynes to Margaret Sanger, heroine of Planned Parenthood. Francis Galton, the founding father of the movement, simply drew attention to the potential social problems caused by the high reproductive rate of poor people. And yes, the idea was perverted beyond recognition by the Nazis.   

The facts underlying eugenics are clear: many human characteristics are to some degree inherited. What was wrong were the coercive policies this scientific fact was used to justify. The science was good; the policies were not. 

In fact, Prof. Barrett’s concern is quite similar to Galton’s. He wanted to protect society from “bad genes”; she wants to protect it from what she regards as toxic ideas. Modern DEI apparatchiks, and the many faculty who agree with her, have in large measure succeeded.   

As the quote shows, her students simply refused, even as an academic exercise, to present the case for eugenics. Although she made some effort to change their minds, there is little doubt that Prof. Barrett regarded her students’ reluctance as admirable. It was not admirable; it was a sorry proof of past indoctrination that prevented her students from even speaking certain things, no matter what the context.   

The response of Barrett’s class is evidence of a barrier to free inquiry that should have been a wake-up call. Instead she seems rather proud of it, which suggests that she and her like-minded colleagues are in fact the source of the problem. They believe that some ideas are unmentionable. They have very effectively trained their students to think likewise. They are ingenious enough to confuse science and politics, to turn words into projectiles, to justify their willful censorship of factual speech in our country’s colleges and universities. They are the reason that Stanford DEI Dean Steinbach can think it right to suppress “actions that have the potential to chill speech.”  

Some may think it is Prof. Barrett’s teaching that should be “chilled.” Instead we should be training students to judge the truth of a factual claim before reacting emotionally to it.