Freedom of thought and speech are under attack, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions proclaimed during an address at the Georgetown University Law Center on Tuesday. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas,” he said. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
Fragile egos? Homogenous thought? Echo chambers? Is Sessions referring to college or Congress?
Because from what we can tell, there’s no shortage of robust debate occurring on campuses all across the nation on a hot array of topics — from immigration reform, to gerrymandering, to global warming. Where free thought is in short supply is in Congress, where any suggestion that climate change may be real, that Obamacare may be worth saving and that the public wants real immigration reform sends Republican leaders scrambling to erect barricades. This is particularly true within the Trump administration, where workers in the Environmental Protection Agency fear for their jobs if they even suggest a possible link between recent hurricanes and climate change. So much for free thought.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Wednesday that the EPA has signed a contract for roughly $25,000 to build a soundproof communications booth for the office of Scott Pruitt, who seems to be setting a new standard for secrecy for EPA administrators. Pardon us, but that sure sounds like an echo chamber.
Free thought and the free expression of ideas is alive and well outside of the Beltway. Inside, not so much.
But it’s true, as the old saying goes, that free speech is never free. On the UC Berkeley campus last weekend, it cost nearly $800,000. That’s how much the university had to dole out to ensure security for conservative agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, whose much ballyhooed “Free Speech Week” went off more like a lamb than a lion. Four straight days of events was supposed to culminate with speeches by conservative writer Ann Coulter and former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. But none of that came to be, and now it’s unclear whether any of it was meant to be, given that none of the required permits had been pulled or the fees paid for the event.
But let’s be clear. Nobody was prevented from speaking. That includes Yiannopoulos, who did make an appearance on Sunday. But without a microphone and without a real audience, his impact was small and forgettable.
For the record, Cal State Bakersfield has sent a formal invitation to Yiannopoulos, welcoming him to speak there. But it’s not clear if that is going to happen. Our guess is it won’t because his primary objective is not free speech. It’s free publicity. And there’s little of the latter to be found on the many campuses where free speech is encouraged.
Yes, there have been some unfortunate examples of colleges that have been less than receptive to speakers with unpopular views. But the public has seen this on display at the nation’s Capitol as well.
In fact, it was the attorney general’s Republican colleagues in the Senate who abruptly silenced Sen. Elizabeth Warren in February when she attempted to read what Coretta Scott King had written years ago about one of Trump’s nominees. That nominee was none other than Sessions himself.