Tevi Troy explores for Discourse the path that leads to campus illiberalism.

Free speech is under assault on America’s campuses, as cancel culture and the woke mob strive to stifle any points of disagreement. Yet free speech issues on campuses, while always worrisome, are not necessarily new.

More than a generation ago, the great Irving Kristol observed that American campuses are islands of intolerance in the sea of diversity. If Kristol were around today, though, he would probably have to amend his observation along the lines that campuses are now continents of intolerance in a shrinking sea of freedom.

Free speech is so devalued on campuses today that there is little cost to those seeking to squelch unfashionable views. When MIT recently canceled a speech by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot because he had questioned non-merit-based hiring, the left saw nothing wrong with MIT’s illiberal action. In a widely noted comment in an article about the incident, The New York Times quoted Williams College geoscience professor Phoebe Cohen as saying, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”

To dismiss the tradition of intellectual debate as some kind of vestige of a white male era seemed to many a nail in the coffin of the very concept of free speech and open inquiry. Unfortunately, this recent episode is only the latest of many similar incidents.

In 2017, a violent mob prevented the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, injuring a liberal professor who had been escorting Murray in the process. Other speakers prevented from speaking on campuses in the past decade include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As free speech on campus defenders Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have described it, “[a] movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”