If you have a son who has developed strongly conservative political views, should you encourage him to apply only to schools that support his outlook? Or if you have a daughter who leans left on the political spectrum, should you encourage her to apply only to schools where she can comfortably express her liberal viewpoints?

Questions like those are difficult to answer, even though people have opinions. For example, some people believe that American campuses generally stifle the expression of conservative thought. And some conservative and liberal-thinking kids have reported that at some colleges and universities where they are in the minority, they hesitate to voice their views.

Oh, those poor kids. Yet do American colleges and universities really try to stifle certain political outlooks?

Jeff Sessions Weighs In

Last May, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions published an article, “Free speech on college campuses is making a comeback” in USA Today. In that article, Sessions argues that free speech is having a resurgence on college campuses, thanks to the efforts of the Trump administration.

How is free speech in danger? Sessions writes that two small colleges – Los Angeles Pierce College and Georgia Gwinnett College – have established “free speech zones” on their campuses where students can express themselves in any way they want; presumably, those colleges are stifling free speech on the remainder of their campuses. Those zones on two college campuses, Sessions writes, demonstrate that free speech is under fire in academia.

His argument is clearly intended to distort the issue at hand and influence readers. (In other words, he is engaging in sophistry.) Saying that the U.S. government should act to defend free speech nationwide because of loony policies on two college campuses makes no sense. It is kind of like saying that if a small dog bites a man in Massachusetts, all the dogs in America should be euthanized, just to be on the safe side.

Sessions also writes that the University of California, Berkeley, has refused to let “conservative” speakers give presentations on campus, which violates the right of freedom of speech. Who were the speakers that Berkeley discouraged from speaking on campus? We did some quick research and found that among them were former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos and political commentator Anne Coulter.

Does a publicly funded school like US Berkeley have the right to exclude certain speakers? That too is a complex issue. Yet if a college or university feels that the presence of certain speakers on their campuses will make their students vulnerable to acts of violence, it seems that they do have that right.

And what about private institutions? Don’t they have the right to either invite or exclude speakers based on a number of considerations? We don’t know of a single college anywhere that ever promised to throw open their gates and invite anyone to talk about anything, anytime. Administrators at colleges who plan programs have decisions to make, and those decisions include deciding whom to invite onto their campuses, and whom to exclude.

A separate, but related, issue is whether religious colleges have the right to ban certain speakers and faculty members, based on their viewpoints. Doesn’t it make sense that an institution like Liberty University, an evangelical Christian university in Virginia, should have the right to ban Satanists or pagans or witches from giving speeches or teaching classes on campus? It seems to make sense. Will anyone accuse Liberty of violating the right of free speech for doing that? We don’t think so.

And Are Those the Correct Questions to Ask?

The purpose of going to college is not to hear speeches from guest celebrities or commencement speakers. It is to go to classes and learn.

Should students be able to raise a stink if a professor expresses an opinion with which they disagree? That also seems like a silly position to take. If a student finds it emotionally devastating to hear an opinion that differs from his or her own,  that student is not ready for college, and certainly unprepared for life in the real world.

A More Realistic Question to Ask

If you want your son or daughter to feel comfortable on a college campus, it might make sense to ask whether there is a Democratic or a Republican Club on campus, or something similar. Considerations like that are central to picking colleges. If your kid likes to go skiing or ride horses or be part of a religious community, what are the opportunities to do so?

Regarding campus politics, we conducted a random online survey of 25 colleges and universities, and found that about 80% of them had Democratic Clubs, while about 75% of them had Republican or “Young Conservative” organizations on campus. Many campuses, for example, are home to chapters of the Federalist Society, a libertarian/conservative organization.

Trying to determine whether there is an organization where your son or daughter can meet like-minded students seems like a good way to assure that his or her college experience will be positive.

Trying to make sure that your son or daughter will never hear an opinion with which he or does not agree? Maybe not.

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