Published November 2, 2017
Beginning with the Berkeley Milo Yiannopoulos riot of February 2, 2017 and continuing through shout-downs of Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather Mac Donald at UCLA and Claremont, the second semester of last academic year kicked off the latest phase of the campus free-speech crisis. Trying to be as complete as possible, I’ve chronicled 10 shout-downs that took place in the spring semester of the 2016–17 academic year. That doubled the five shout-downs of the previous semester.
The spring semester of 2017 will long be known for popularizing this fearsome technique of speech suppression. Remarkably, however, as we approach the halfway mark of the Fall 2017 semester, the rate of shout-downs is now nearly quadruple that of last spring. I count 19 shout-downs so far this year. At the current rate, that would make for 38 fall-semester shout-downs. This would nearly quadruple the 10 shout-downs of last spring, a semester already infamous for speaker disruptions.
To put it another way, about halfway through the current semester we’ve seen close to double the number of shout-downs that occurred during the entire notorious spring semester of last year. That’s more shout-downs in the first two months of this term than we saw during the entire previous academic year.
The targets of shout-downs have expanded. Not only visiting speakers but administrators, professors, and fellow students are now subject to shout-downs. The substantial escalation in both the frequency and targeting of shout-downs is largely due to the failure of administrators to discipline last year’s disruptions. Once students realized they could get away with silencing visiting speakers, they turned the technique on internal university opponents as well.
I’ve covered many of this fall’s shout-downs in “The Campus Free-Speech Crisis Deepens,” “Campus Shout-downs Spread,” “Campus Chaos: Daily Shout-Downs for a Week,” and two pieces describing single events. In listing this semester’s shout-downs to date, I’ll note only briefly instances I’ve already discussed, spending more time on new cases.
August 28: The first lecture of Reed College’s required freshman course on the origins of Western Civilization is cancelled when students protesting its “Eurocentrism” take over the stage.
September 20: A debate between libertarians and conservatives over President Trump’s immigration policies is disrupted by leftist students at the University of Pittsburgh. Protesters are ejected by police.
September 22: Former FBI director James Comey’s address to a convocation at Howard University is delayed and repeatedly disrupted by students protesting his earlier defense of police against criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement.
September 27: Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU’s Virginia chapter, is completely shut down just a few minutes into her talk on free speech at William and Mary by students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Disrupters chant “Liberalism is white supremacy” and “The revolution will not uphold the Constitution.”
September 29: Virginia Tech president Timothy Sands is met with shouts and chants during his State of the University speech by students calling for the firing of a professor they label a “white supremacist” and “Nazi.” (The identity of the professor and the specific complaints remain unclear.)
October 2: A panel discussion, “Identity Politics: The New Racialism on Campus?” is repeatedly shouted down during the question period by leftist students at Rutgers University. The panel, part of Spiked’s “Unsafe Spaces” tour, features Mark Lilla, the liberal Democratic critic of identity politics, and several others. Panelist Kmele Foster is the target of most of the interruptions. Foster, a libertarian, is black and is accused by the disrupters, many of whom are from Black Lives Matter, of “deracializing” himself. Fearing for Foster’s safety, police escort him out of the building.
October 5: Disrupters break into a class being taught by Suzanne Goldberg, law professor, senior administrator, and Title IX compliance officer at Columbia University, to protest the school’s handling of sexual-assault claims.
October 5: Non-student Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats disrupt and cut short a public question-and-answer session at Whittier College featuring California attorney general Xavier Becerra and California state-assembly leader Ian Calderon. Disrupters shout slogans like “Build that wall,” “Lock him up,” “Respect our president,” and “America first.”
October 6: University of Oregon president Michael Schill is prevented from delivering his State of the University speech when about 45 chanting leftist protesters take over the stage and accuse the university of fascism in its handling of issues from tuition increases to the structure of programs for minorities.
October 9: Republican Texas state representative Briscoe Cain is shouted down before he can begin a talk at Texas Southern University Law School. After disrupters are ejected by police, TSU president Austin Lane calls them back and cancels Cain’s talk, claiming it had not been arranged through proper channels. President Lane’s claim has since been disputed, and Cain has announced plans to sue him and TSU.
October 10: A lecture via Skype by English far-rightist Tommy Robinson is shouted down and largely stopped when shouting protesters at Columbia University storm the stage.
October 10: A talk by Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), is disrupted by non-student audience members who repeatedly interrupt the speaker with questions and accusations. Hecklers refuse to stop when repeatedly asked to do so by Professor Hao Huang, director of the Scripps Humanities Institute. Police are called to escort the speaker out.
A video of the event was uploaded by Arthur C. Schaper, who appears to have been one of the leading hecklers at both the Becerra shout-down and this one.
The Scripps disruption is notable as a second shout-down from the right. Many of the hecklers’ questions were substantive and would have been fine if they’d been asked in proper turn, with the speaker permitted to answer. Instead, hecklers peppered Ayloush with a continual stream of shouted questions and accusations, leading to angry exchanges among audience members and legitimate concern for the speaker’s safety.
Afterwards, Scripps College put out a statement condemning the hecklers’ comments and offering “support and resources” to students forced to listen to critiques of Islam. Instead, Scripps should have considered having security eject the hecklers, not for the content of their questions and comments, but for their disruptive behavior.
October 11: Charles Murray’s talk on America’s cultural divide is severely disrupted by students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, objecting to his controversial earlier book, The Bell Curve.
October 15: A meeting of College Republicans at the University of California, Santa Cruz is disrupted for two hours by leftist protesters who argue that Republicans have no right to free speech or peaceful assembly since they are racists, fascists, and white supremacists. The protesters force their way into the meeting and call in college officials, expecting them to shut the Republicans down. When officials refuse to do so, the chants continue until three disrupters are arrested by police.
I’ve argued that the practice of reporting alleged discrimination to “bias response teams” has encouraged students to stop debating with their opponents, so they can turn them in to the authorities instead. This was confirmed by a new statement from the UC Santa Cruz disrupters noting that prior to their shout-down, they had filed several reports calling for action against the College Republicans through the university’s “hate” reporting system.
October 17: A panel discussion on “civil discourse” at UCLA, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and featuring UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and LA Times deputy editorial-page editor Jon Healey, is successfully disrupted and effectively shut down during the question period by leftist opponents of President Trump.
October 19: Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a popular conservative organization on many college campuses, is continually disrupted by leftist protesters during a talk at Cleveland State University. Making a vague but disturbing threat, protestors unfurl an Antifa flag and shout, “Does this make you scared?” Although disrupters yell throughout the entire speech, Kirk endures and finishes, to general applause.
A campus free-speech bill currently under consideration by the Ohio legislature would apply to public universities such as Cleveland State. Unfortunately, the proposed Ohio bill omits provisions dealing with discipline for shout-downs. Only the model campus free-speech bill I co-authored along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute addresses shout-downs.
October 19: White nationalist Richard Spencer is continuously interrupted by shouting protestors during his speech at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
The Spencer shout-down received a great deal of coverage, but some lesser-known points should be emphasized. Technically, Spencer’s Florida talk was not a college event. Although it took place on a campus, Spencer wasn’t sponsored or invited by anyone at U. Florida. He was able to come only because the university rents speaking facilities to all comers and cannot discriminate based on the content of a prospective speaker’s thought. Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman has emphasized that audience members at Spencer’s talk were guests at a private event, and were therefore under no obligation to respect Spencer’s free-speech rights. In Feldman’s view, then, there was nothing problematic about this shout-down.
Feldman takes his point too far. Legal technicalities aside, this was a university shout-down and not a model of good conduct. Free speech is a cultural value as well as a legal principle, and the cultural issue may be the key component in the end. I agree with those who say the best response to Spencer would have been either to ignore him or to protest peacefully outside the venue.
That said, the legal status of Spencer’s talk as a private, non-university event is a non-trivial fact. The Goldwater model campus free-speech bill would protect Spencer’s right to speak at a public university only if he was invited by students or faculty. Failing that, the university is under no obligation to host him unless it has a pre-existing policy of renting facilities to all comers.
After noted free-speech advocate and University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Stone defended Spencer’s right to secure meeting space at public universities that have pre-existing policies of renting to all comers, Spencer asked Stone for an invitation to the University of Chicago. Stone replied that while he would defend the right of others to invite Spencer to speak, he personally sees no reason to encourage or endorse such an event. That strikes the right balance. No-one is obligated to invite Richard Spencer, or anyone else, to speak at a university.
October 20: A public meeting with Morgan Levy, the Title IX coordinator at the University of Rochester, is canceled when student protesters unhappy with Levy’s enforcement policies arrive with noisemakers. The students had earlier promised to disrupt Levy’s talk, which is scheduled near an area where medical exams were being administered. Administrators concerned about the integrity of the exams are forced to cancel Levy’s talk when they see the protesters arrive with noisemakers.
October 26: Ivan Dozier, who from 2010 to 2015 portrayed Chief Illiniwek, the unofficial football mascot of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is addressing a regular meeting of the Illini Republicans on the controversy over the school’s Native American mascot. Dozier’s talk is disrupted when a woman enters and begins ripping up posters and other material belonging to the Illini Republicans, Dozier, and the Honor the Chief Society (which advocates for the retention of the Chief Illiniwek mascot). The disrupter (identified by the Daily Illini as a university employee) gets into an altercation with a member of the Honor the Chief Society, who tries to restrain her. The disrupter then sits in the presenter’s chair and refuses to leave until campus police escort her out. Dozier’s talk is halted during the entire altercation. (Serious disturbances followed at UI, as protests against Chief Illiniwek continued during the homecoming parade.)
The case is interesting for the disruption by an alleged university employee. The Goldwater model campus free-speech bill requires public universities to develop sanctions not only for students who interfere with the expressive rights of others, but for university employees who do so as well. This incident shows why that provision is necessary.
No one knows whether this semester’s shout-downs will continue at this rate. In any case, nearly twice as many shout-downs as last semester in only half the time is a striking tally.
Columbia, the only school that’s had multiple shout-downs this semester, is also the only school that’s initiated disciplinary proceedings. The fact that Columbia dropped those proceedings under faculty pressure just yesterday is further proof that universities are incapable of handling this problem on their own.
At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where the Board of Regents has adopted a discipline policy drawn from a Goldwater-based bill moving through the legislature, demonstrators explicitly acknowledged that they had decided not to shout down a speaker because of the new penalties. Goldwater-based campus free-speech bills are the best medicine for the shout-down epidemic.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]