Recently, news media have reported stories of students shouting down and shutting out speakers with whom they disagree. Such was the case last month, when UC Berkeley College Republicans issued an invitation to a controversial self-described conservative speaker who usually taunts his audience with racist, homophobic and sexist comments.
The university administration supported the speaker’s right to speak, defied requests from students and faculty to withdraw the invitation, and assigned increased security to protect the event.
According to Newsweek, Berkeley students spent weeks planning a nonviolent protest and gathered outside the venue waving signs and calling for the event to be shut down. Nonetheless, a group of so-called anarchists wearing black masks showed up, clashed with the police, threw Molotov cocktails, smashed windows, and caused minor injuries.
By most accounts, the rioters were not part of the campus community, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) concluded the University was being attacked for the actions of people whom it had little capacity to control.
In the days and weeks following, pundits from liberal Bill Maher to Fox News commentators charged that Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement originated, has become another example of an emerging “Freedom-from-speech-that-offends” trend on college campuses.
Shutting down campus speech with which one does not agree is not a recent phenomenon. S.I. Hayakawa, a former San Francisco State University president, was famously celebrated for yanking the microphone cord on anti-war protestors and rode that deed all the way to the U.S. Senate.
FIRE maintains a list of “disinvited campus speakers” across the political spectrum, from liberals Bill Ayers, Al Franken and Hillary Clinton, to conservatives George W. Bush, Ann Coulter and Ben Carson. Even Sesame Street’s Big Bird managed to prove unacceptable in some quarters.
Paul Zingg, recently retired Chico State president, observes, “Educators have to be champions and exemplars of civil discourse and foster an environment that enables students to develop views that are clearly reasoned and personally appropriated.”
Zingg adds, “Educators themselves have to speak to the issues being debated and contested, not just to principles and guarantees of speech, expression, and assembly.”
Former Yale Dean Pamela George writes, “Students must understand that freedom of speech is a privilege and a right that inclusive universities must protect.” Dean George continues, “There must also be a transparent process for adjudicating violations when free speech has crossed the line and become hate speech.”
Zingg proposes that controversies provide “teachable moments” for students and faculty, and administrators have a responsibility to teach through the powerful force of personal example.
Last week, Stanley Fish, the distinguished legal scholar, wrote a provocative opinion piece claiming that universities are primarily committed to freedom of inquiry rather than the freedom to speak whatever is on one’s mind. Infamous examples include the Harvard-Smithsonian climate change denier who received $1.2 million from oil companies, lobby groups and oil billionaires.
“Freedom of speech is not an academic value; accuracy of speech is,” Fish writes. “Free political speech is positively antithetical to inquiry: It skews inquiry in advance; you get where you wanted to get from the get go.”
Charles Murray, little more than an academic sideshow peddling long since discredited racist ideas, recently re-emerged on the campus speaker circuit. When Murray appeared at Middlebury College, student protestors shouted him down. Again, various media outlets blamed students for the resulting debacle.
New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb notes, “Current debates regarding free speech tend to center as much on the rights of those making offensive statements as on those potentially affected by what is being said.” In the current partisan American blame game culture, Cobb adds, “Every act of principle only furthers the perception that abusers are the real victims.”
Today’s students have been raised in a nation where many adults claim that racism and sexism no longer exist. It could be that when students confront backsliding racist or sexist speakers, they feel compelled to silence such voices, much as Germany has sought to quash any remnants of Nazism.
College is a time when young people continue to develop psychologically, socially and emotionally. Since the older we get the better we were, we often forget how self-righteous, self-assured, intolerant, and downright impossible we were in our youth.
As we watch the spectacle of politicians and others lying, encouraging violence against those who disagree with them, and worse, perhaps parents, educators, and other adults should be more understanding of the idealism of young people and try setting a better example.
Editor’s Note: Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: email@example.com