We have been discussing the rising intolerance and violence on college campuses, particularly against conservative speakers. (Here and here and here and here). Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over mob rule on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU officials and James Comey. Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech. Now, CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek has a different approach. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. It reveals the twisted logic overtaking our schools on both tolerance and free speech.
Blackman, a law professor from the South Texas College of Law Houston, often writes thoughtful conservative takes on legal issues and was appearing at an event with the CUNY Federalist Society. While Bilek says that the heckler’s caused only a “limited” interruption, Blackman says that it was prolonged and prevented him from being able to give his full speech.
The protesters reportedly chanted things like “legal objectivity is a myth” and called him “a white supremacist.”
Bilek responded in an email to Inside Higher Ed, that the interruption was acceptable because it was short: “For the first eight minutes of the 70-minute event, the protesting students voiced their disagreements. The speaker engaged with them. The protesting students then filed out of the room, and the event proceeded to its conclusion without incident.”
She added “this non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech,” adding that “it did not violate any university policy.”
Some of that is defensible, but Bilek lost me in the end. First, students clearly have a right to protest outside of the event. Stopping an event is not an act of free speech. It is the denial of free speech and should be punished by the school as such. For Bilek to say that it is not a violation of CUNY policy is alarming. Particularly in an academic setting where a variety of views and values should be allowed to be voiced, the shutting down of a presentation or speech is to deny the choice to others in exercising their rights. It is an act to prevent others from even hearing someone with whom you disagree.
I recently wrote how Antifa and other college protesters are increasingly denouncing free speech and the foundations for liberal democracies. Some protesters reject classic liberalism and the belief in free speech as part of the oppression on campus. The movement threatens both academic freedom and free speech — a threat that is growing due to the failure of administrators and faculty to remain true to core academic principles.
A clear line must be drawn between protesting and preventing speech. Students who shutdown classes or speeches should be disciplined and, in appropriate cases, expelled.