Niall Ferguson on Free Speech in America

Almost every month this year has seen at least one assault on free speech on a college campus. In February the University of California, Berkeley, cancelled a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, the British alt-right journalist and provocateur, after a violent protest. You may say that Yiannopoulos is an unserious publicity-seeker who welcomed the furore. But the same cannot be said of my old friend Charles Murray, a conservative social scientist and pillar of the American Enterprise Institute, whose book Coming Apart so brilliantly anatomised the social origins of Trumpism.

In March students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he had been invited to speak, shouted Murray down. When he and his faculty host, Allison Stanger, moved to another room, protesters set off fire alarms. When speaker and host left the building, the protesters pushed and shoved them. Stanger suffered concussion after someone grabbed her by the hair and twisted her neck.

In April a speech at Claremont McKenna College in California by the conservative writer Heather MacDonald had to be live-streamed when protesters blocked access to the auditorium. Berkeley struck again that same month, cancelling a speech by the pro-Trump journalist Ann Coulter because of "security concerns". In each of these cases, the target has been on the political right.

Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington state, always thought of himself as "deeply progressive". In May, however, it was his turn to fall victim to the unfree speech vigilantes. Weinstein refused to acquiesce when "white students, staff and faculty were "invited to leave campus" for a day because (in the words of the Evergreen student newspaper) "students of colour" had "voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election". Weinstein objected, saying this racially targeted "invitation" was "an act of oppression in and of itself".

In response, a group of about 50 students shrilly accused him of "supporting white supremacy". The college police, under orders from Evergreen's president, told Weinstein they could not guarantee his safety. When he held his biology class in a public park, the names of the students who attended were put online, with photographs.

Freedom is rarely killed off by people chanting "Down with freedom!" It is killed off by people claiming that the greater good. If the criterion for censorship is that nobody's feelings can be hurt, we are finished as a free society.

Where such arguments lead is just a long-haul flight away. The regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela used to be the toast of such darlings of the American left as Naomi Klein, whose 2007 book The Shock Doctrine praised it as "a zone of relative economic calm and predictability" in a world of marauding free-market economists. Today (as was foreseeable 10 years back) Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, its opposition leaders are in jail and its constitution is about to be rewritten to keep the Chavista dictatorship in power.

Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: the real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).


The original (longer) article was written by Niall Ferguson for the Daily Telegraph.