Among the many criticisms and concerns addressed to University President Lawrence Summers at Tuesday night’s town hall meeting, several students complained about a purported “silencing” of conservative students on campus. If silencing is a reality at the Law School, then we have cause for concern. But before we rush to decry it, we must explore what — if any — silencing is going on.
What is silencing? Some argue that it is found in the rolling of eyes, the audible sighs when an unpopular view is voiced and classroom responses that treat unpopular opinions as if they should not even have been voiced. Those who feel silenced understand such reactions to be personal attacks, and they tend to believe that those silencing them cannot separate their opinion of the person from feelings about their views.
In a law school that has more than its fair share of “gunners,” is it realistic to think that conservatives are silenced any more than anyone else? While conservatives seem most vocal about silencing (an odd dichotomy if there ever was one) liberals, especially extreme liberals, also complain that they feel uncomfortable in class when their views differ considerably from the mainstream.
Some conservatives might argue that the greatest degree of silencing comes from the faculty. Certain professors, such as Hanson, are accused by conservatives of being dismissive of their views to the point that they do not want to speak up. But while it is true that the faculty is liberal, and some professors will take a dim view of conservative ideas, that is not “silencing.” Professors at the Law School have no problem recognizing raised hands and leaving the floor open for discussion. They need not be expected to give credence to positions with which they disagree.
Furthermore, before any member of the HLS community complains about silencing, we must consider her academic background. HLS students are among the most privileged and educated individuals in the world. These students were admitted, at least in part, because of their presumed ability to make cohesive, intelligent arguments and provide coherent explanations of personal experiences and beliefs. We can expect the typical HLS student to be articulate, and all but the most provincial among us can expect the student body to include those with whom we disagree. That some students voice their disagreement loudly and disrespectfully may well be a problem, but it is not silencing. Being rude and disrespectful is also not the sole domain of liberals, either.
Conservative students tend to cast themselves as an oppressed minority, yet they consistently demonstrate themselves to be one of the most organized and powerful groups on campus. One need only attend the Student Organizations Fair at Admitted Students Weekend — where the Federalist Society has the largest and most visible presence in the room — to see that conservatives do not seem afraid to stand out.
If a student feels uncomfortable expressing an unpopular opinion, that is largely his own fault and his own choice. No one here is incapable of forming a sentence or making an argument. If she stays silent in class because she thinks somebody will boo or hiss, that is her own choice. Given the confrontational profession we are learning, many here would do well start developing thicker skins now.