We have yet another event cancelled by students who are opposed to allowing others to hear opposing views on campus. Students at Washington College blew whistles and yelled over Princeton University Professor Robertle George to prevent him from speaking. While expressing disapproval, the College has yet to announce any disciplinary action against any student.
Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland is the 10th-oldest college in the United States. It was the first college chartered after American independence. Yet, it has now become the latest example of an anti-free speech movement that has taken over our campuses with the support of some faculty.
Professor George was giving a speech titled “The Truth-Seeking Mission of the University.” Protesters were allowed to march around the room, blowing whistles and blaring music. As reported by the Star Democrat, “we have the power here to make our voices heard.” They also had the power to stop others from speaking or hearing opposing views.
Notably, Washington College President Mike Sosulski was in attendance. Yet, the campus police reportedly decided not to intervene to ask the students to leave because “they did not want to escalate the situation.” Instead, they allowed the protesters to shutdown a free speech event with the university president there.
The College also sent mixed messages. Brian Speer, a spokesman for Washington College, explained that “the students took issue with homophobic and transphobic statements that Professor George has made in the past.” However, there was no explanation of why the protesters were allowed to take control of the room or why there were no disciplinary actions announced by the college.
Antoine Jordan, director of student engagement, said he could not be more proud of the protesters, though that comment may have come before the disruption.
Speer noted that the college declined to cancel the events and offered alternative forums for protesters. He added that the disruption “is not consistent with the core values of the liberal arts to which Washington College is committed.”
However, the College harrumphed as protesters stopped George speaking but did nothing to stop it. Instead, the university president reportedly sat there like a decorative ficus plant.
The Star Democrat reported that Washington College Associate Professor of Political Science Joseph Prud’homme, founding director of the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture, tried to get the students to respect free speech. One protester yelled in response “How did Hitler rise to power?” The student then added “because he was given a platform.”
It is that simple. The college then backed off and the protesters won, again, in silencing an opposing voice.
The pattern is all too familiar. For example, Stanford Law School dean Jenny Martinez released a powerful defense of free speech in a 10-page letter to the entire school. The letter also revealed that Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach has been put on leave after her disgraceful condemnation of conservative appellate judge Stuart Duncan. Martinez chastised the students responsible for cancelling Duncan’s remarks by shouting him down. However, Martinez decided not to hold a single student responsible for the disgraceful treatment of the judge and the disruption of the event.
That is also the case at other schools.
Northwestern University has been consistently ranked as one of the worst university’s for free speech. Students previously succeeded in cancelling a speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 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.”
I previously criticized former Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro for his lack of support for free speech on campus. Schapiro denounced what he called “absolute” free speech positions and endorsed speech sanctions, including treating speech as a form of assault.
Schapiro helped create the environment of intolerance at the school. For example, we previously discussed a Sociology 201 class by Professor Beth Redbird that examined “inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class and gender.” To that end, Redbird invited both an undocumented person and a spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to speak to the class. It is the type of balance that is now considered verboten on campuses.
Members of MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color and Rainbow Alliance organized to stop other students from hearing from the ICE representative. However, they could not have succeeded without the help of Northwestern administrators (including Dean of Students Todd Adams). The protesters were screaming “F**k ICE” outside of the hall. Adams and the other administrators then said that the protesters screaming profanities would be allowed into the class if they promised not to disrupt the class.
Of course, that did not happen. As soon as the protesters were allowed into the classroom, they prevented the ICE representative from speaking. The ICE official eventually left and Redbird canceled the class to discuss the issue with the protesters that just prevented her students from hearing an opposing view.
The comments of the Northwestern students were predictable after being told by people like Schapiro that some offensive speech should be treated as a form of assault. SESP sophomore April Navarro rejected that faculty should be allowed to invite such speakers to their classrooms for a “good, nice conversation with ICE.” She insisted such speakers needed to be silenced because they “terrorize communities” and profit from detainee labor. Here is the face of the new generation of censors being shaped by speech-intolerant academics like Schapiro:
“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence. We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”
So Northwestern had the names of the students who disrupted an actual classroom, but elected to do nothing.
Other faculty have supported the use of a heckler’s veto. Years ago, at Rice University, I debated NYU Professor Jeremy Waldron who is a leading voice for speech codes. Waldron insisted that shutting down speakers through heckling is a form of free speech. It is not. It is a rationalization for stopping certain views from being voiced or heard in higher education.
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. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned). Even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech.
The solution is obvious but it requires courage. School administrators need to suspend students for disrupting such events and to expel repeat offenders. In this latest incident, a college president just sat there as the students took over an event as his staff muttered aspirational statements about free speech.
American higher education is facing an existential moment in the rise of the greatest anti-free speech movement in our history. We must either stand firm against the forces of intolerance and orthodoxy — or cede control of our campuses to whatever mob has the loudest members.