I have been critical of the actions taken by former FBI director James Comey in leaking FBI information after he was fired by President Donald Trump. However, his appointment by Howard University as an endowed chair of public policy represented a good opportunity for both Howard and Comey. However, his first address to the university as part of the 2017-18 convocation was a disaster for both Howard and Comey as protesters shouted profanities and disrupted the event. It was the latest example of protesters shutting down free speech on campus and the university appeared unwilling or unable to enforce basic civility rules by removing and suspending the students.
The students chanted “black power” while pumping their fists in the air at the historically black college. One student led the others in chanting “I love the color of my skin” and singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
In the meantime, other students called on the protesters to let them hear Comey speak. Those students came to Howard for an education and correctly wanted to hear his remarks as one of the highest-ranking former Justice officials in our government – and a key historical figure in the current controversy over the Russian investigation. It was a wonderful opportunity for any student but they were denied the opportunity because these protesters did not want them to hear Comey.
For his part, Comey remained calm and reasoned, saying that “I hope you’ll listen to what I have to say. I listened to you for five minutes.”
It didn’t help.
We have to decide as educators whether we are maintaining forums for free speech and learning or whether we will yield to the power of the mob. Currently, the “heckler’s veto” reigns at many schools that lack the commitment and confidence to enforce basic rules of civility and free speech. If students want to come to a university to silence speakers and prevent others from hearing opposing views, they should be expelled as opposed to our educational mission. Howard University is a wonderful school with a proud history. It should not surrender its educational identity to the loudest and most disruptive elements of its community.