Bradford VivianMar 15, 2023
The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education
Oxford University Press 2022
If we listen to the politicians and pundits, college campuses have become fiercely ideological spaces where students unthinkingly endorse a liberal orthodoxy and forcibly silence anyone who dares to disagree. These commentators lament the demise of free speech and academic freedom. But what is really happening on college campuses?
Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education (Oxford UP, 2022) shows how misinformation about colleges and universities has proliferated in recent years, with potentially dangerous results. Popular but highly misleading claims about a so-called free speech crisis and a lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses emerged in the mid-2010s and continue to shape public discourse about higher education across party lines. Such disingenuous claims impede constructive deliberation about higher learning while normalizing suspect ideas about First Amendment freedoms and democratic participation.
Taking a non-partisan approach, Bradford Vivian argues that reporting on campus culture has grossly exaggerated the importance and representativeness of a small number of isolated events; misleadingly advocated for an artificial parity between liberals and conservatives as true viewpoint diversity; mischaracterized the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces; and purposefully confused critique and protest with censorship and "cancel culture." Organizations and think tanks generate pseudoscientific data to support this discourse, then advocate for free speech in highly specific ways that actually limit speech in general. In the name of free speech and viewpoint diversity, we now see restrictions on the right to protest and laws banning certain books, theories, and subjects from schools.
By deconstructing the political and rhetorical development of the free speech crisis, Vivian not only provides a powerful corrective to contemporary views of higher education, but provides a blueprint for readers to identify and challenge misleading language--and to understand the true threats to our freedoms.
Bradford Vivian is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and past Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State University. His previous books include Commonplace Witnessing: Rhetorical Invention, Historical Remembrance, and Public Culture (OUP 2017) and Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again (2010), which received the Winans-Wichelns Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address awarded by the National Communication Association.
Tom Discenna is Professor of Communication at Oakland University whose work examines issues of academic labor and communicative labor more broadly.