At a Rutgers University panel discussion in October, “Identity politics: the new racialism on campus?,” sponsored by Spike, “a British anti-misanthropy current-affairs magazine,” audience members began interrupting the panelists with chants of “black lives matter!” When one of the panelists attempted to explain his position, a woman from the audience shouted out that she did not “need statistics,” further complaining that, at any rate, “the system” controls facts. “It’s the system. It’s the institution,” she raved. “Don’t tell me about facts,” she shouted, most revealingly. “I don’t need no facts.”
Since the presidential election last fall, a new trend has shown itself on campuses in progressive activism and the assault on conservative speech. As part of the paroxysms of moral indignation liberals have shown in response to what they see as the ascension of white supremacy and alt-right extremism in the wake of President Trump’s victory, any student groups to right of center are subject to being smeared as extremists, racists, and white supremacists, and their very presence on campus a threat to victim groups. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, a meeting of the school’s College Republicans was disrupted after students responded to a Facebook post that urged protesters to come to the meeting and shut it down. “We need a movement of people on this campus that rejects the ‘right of assembly,’ or ‘right of free speech’ for white supremacists and fascists,” the Facebook post read, and activists eventually did force open the door to the meeting space and screamed that the members were “fascists,” “racists,” and “white supremacists.”
Also in October, a similar scene took place at Columbia University where activists mounted “an anti-fascist rally . . . where Tommy Robinson, founder of the far-right Islamophobic hate group English Defense League,” was scheduled to speak. Protesters announced “that alt-right speakers like Tommy Robinson are NOT WELCOME on our campus,” another common phrase used by activists that suggests that they believe they, and only they, are the moral conscience and voice of the entire university community, when that is clearly not the case. A video taken of the event shows protesters attempting to block entrances to the building, storming the area where the speech was to be held, shouting “black lives matter” and “white supremacy,” banging the outer walls of the auditorium to drown out any speaking, and dominating the room with random screaming directed at audience members, and loud, repetitive chants of, “Whose campus? Our campus!”
At an October event at University of Michigan, in yet another example, Charles Murray, political scientist, libertarian, and author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, was scheduled to speak but protestors screamed out continually for 40 minutes, “Charles Murray go away; sexist, racist, KKK! Charles Murray go away; sexist, racist KKK!,” occupying the majority of the seats in the venue and ultimately preventing Murray from speaking at all. When an administrator asked the protestors to cease their heckling, they screamed back at him, “We’ve been silent too long!” and “stop silencing students of color!”
Administrators have been slow to respond to these outrageous outbursts and out of control protests by leftist students who have unilaterally decided that their ideology is the only acceptable one and that they have the moral right to suppress the speech of others whose views they marginalize, condemn, and abhor. But the frequency and intensity of these disruptions, and the virulence of the left’s reaction to conservative speech, has finally pushed at least one institution to take a firm moral stand and address this serious problem head-on. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin recently drafted a new policy, titled “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” which will enact penalties for any individual who exercises the “hecklers veto,” disrupts the speech of others, or otherwise prevents others from enjoying freedom of speech on campus.
Anticipating the mistaken belief that many students now have that certain speech—such as that speech referred to as “hate speech”—does not deserve protection, the policy asserts that “[I]t is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Maintaining civility on a campus is, of course, a worthy goal, but it is a secondary, not primary, consideration. “Although the university greatly values civility,” the policy states, “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community.” For a second infraction, a student will be subject to a formal investigation and a disciplinary hearing, and multiple infractions will result in suspension and eventually expulsion.
Shutting down speech is not only unconstitutional, it violates one of the university’s primary values. When members of the academic community ignore those values and violate regulations, there have to be swift and significant consequences, and these sanctions must be publicized in advance of any event, as the Wisconsin policy will do. Students should not and cannot be allowed to take over a campus and hijack the robust exchange of ideas—even if they think they have the best intentions and are promoting a virtuous, progressive agenda.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education,” observed the champion of free speech, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.