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The ethics of free speech in the Trump era

I’ve been thinking about Arthur Brooks' overly simplistic article in the New York Times. He takes a safe contrarian stance, offering a diluted and soft-ball criticism of modern liberal exceptionalism. Independent of where we stand in the tug-of-war between liberals and conservatives on campus, I wager most rational people would agree with him point-for-point that ideological inclusivity trumps conformity when it comes to fostering productive intellectual discourse.

I should preface my complaint by saying that I agree with the main gist of Brooks’ argument. Unfortunately, gone are the days when one could privately bear the hallmark ofa middle-ground “conservative” in the Nixonian sense and not expect to be somehow outed and lumped in with tiki torch-carrying white supremacists. Religiously or economically motivated conservative scholars who lend a refreshing political reprieve to the de facto liberalism of most campuses don’t deserve to face discrimination and the misplaced vitriol of liberal colleagues.


I am disappointed with the limitations of Brooks’ defense of conservatives on campus. Rather than beat to death the obvious point that someone is entitled to his or her personal political opinion, it’s far more pertinent to consider the nuanced, ethical debate surrounding free speech and its limitations. When, if ever, is it acceptable for campuses to engage in ideological exclusion of a political stance based on moral grounds? For better or worse, since universities have morphed into collectivist “snowflake” societies or bastions of what Brooks labels liberal “inclusivity,” contrary to his opinion, there may be a need for a liberal bias and archconservative exclusion on modern campuses.

Brooks’ call for greater inclusivity of a conservative perspective only extends so far, and he seems unaware that his detractors will have a fair case against him in the era of Trump. It may seem unnecessary to mention that no academic who publicly endorses Trump’s brand of sexism or racism would ever be employed by a credible institution, although sadly, support for these perspectives continues to circulate in America. Still, Brooks leaves a loophole open by failing to make the distinction between conscious “conservatives” and raging Trump supporters that has become a necessary compensatory gesture to quell the justifiable disquietude of the left wing. Furthermore, Brooks overlooks the real danger that by vocalizing a pro-Trump, archconservative stance, academics can indirectly and sometimes intentionally lend credibility and intellectual fuel to the many “isms” of Trump’s regime. Thus, Brooks’ argument fails on a larger scale to engage with the modern issues affecting the American sphere outside of the cloistered and insular political spectrum of the Ivy League and, more generally, academia.

As it stands, there seem to be two camps among politically inclined non-liberal academics: those who earnestly hope that that their centrist, well-thought-out opinions can help reform the Trump administration’s illogical radicalism, and those who, for personal reasons, wage a crusade in the name of supporting Trumpian politics. Universities should not be lambasted for self-selectively “shunning” those of the latter persuasion, the die-hard professors and scholars who pass under the guise of Brooks’ “conservatives” but openly choose to align themselves with the ethically bankrupt movements associated with our president. Such candidates may include Holocaust deniers and anyone who believes that climate change is a hoax. In fact, in the case of academics who support outright lies, universities have an obligation to take a stance in deciding which perspectives are credible enough to impart upon students and which professors have enough of a moral backbone to curtail their personally motivated activism for the sake of the student body.

Thus, herein lies the biggest flaw of Brooks’ argument. He is oblivious to the danger of a self-appointed “conservative,” who through his or her political activism knowingly encourages Trump’s agenda (including his views on women and minority groups and his critical position on DACA), and acts outside of ethical boundaries by posing a real danger to other individuals. Universities, as influential institutions, should be allowed to make a moral distinction as to when free speech devolves into hate speech and when pro-Trump political stances may bear negative consequences in the lives of their campus community members.

Hayley Siegel is a sophomore from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at