I have previously written about the curtailment of free speech and the refusal of both faculty and students to allow opposing views to be heard on campuses. Northwestern University (one of my alma maters) has been particularly complicit in this trend against free speech. Now, protesters have blocked students and faculty from hearing remarks (and have a dialogue with) former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The incident at Northwestern follows a growing list of such conservative speakers barred from being heard by protesters.
To the delight of protesters, Sessions was escorted off campus in a triumph of silencing the free speech of others. Sessions remarked “I’m just gonna tell you: This is stupid. This is not right.” He is right.
The event was sponsored by the College Republicans and Sessions’ speech was titled “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda.” Protesters however refused to allow others to hear such views.
Student Zachery Novicoff embodied the rising intolerance to free speech on campus. He is quoted as saying “There’s a limitation to free speech. That ends at overtly racist old white dudes.”
Such students claim the right to prevent other students from participating in classes or events — a similar complaint raised against the recent protests against James Comey at Howard University as well as schools like William & Mary. Likewise, the Homeland Security Secretary was prevented from speaking at Georgetown. For years, I have written about the loss of free speech protections and why universities must take action in such disruptions of classrooms like a recent incident at Northwestern University. This violates a core defining value of our academic institutions and such students should be suspended for such conduct. There is a difference between voicing your views and preventing others from speaking, particularly inside of a classroom. When you claim the right to prevent others from hearing opposing views or speakers, you are at odds with the academic mission of these universities.
This danger was evident when McAleenan was interrupted almost immediately after he rose to speak. Others in the room objected that they wanted to hear from him, but the protesters would not allow anyone to hear views that they disagreed with. McAleenan was eventually forced to leave. The department, which published the secretary’s prepared remarks, expressed regret that the students prevented a meaningful exchange.
I do not buy the convenient argument that silencing others is a form of free speech. I have previously discussed 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. Dartmouth Professor Mark Bray, the author of a book entitled “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” is one of the chief enablers of these protesters. Bray speaks positively of the effort to supplant traditional views of free speech: “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase that says I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He defines anti-fascists as “illiberal” who reject the notion that far right views deserve to “coexist” with opposing views.
The cancellation of the Sessions event is a disgrace for Northwestern and a triumph for those who want to deny free speech to those with whom they disagree. Censoring speech has become a badge of honor for some. It has not stopped at simply stopping speeches and classes. 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 official. 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. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. 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.
This anti-free speech trend constitutes an existential threat to the educational mission of high education. Too many of us on faculties are silent in the face of this intolerance.