The Campus Free-Speech Crisis Deepens

Published September 27, 2017

National Review Online

Less than a month into the school year, it’s evident that the campus free-speech crisis is still with us. Shout-downs are back, aggravated by troubling developments at some of last year’s hardest hit campuses. There are also signs of a general escalation: in addition to outside speakers, targets of attack now include disfavored professors, administrators, courses, and students. Campus-wide disruptions, Evergreen-style, have become a real possibility.

Even at Berkeley, where Ben Shapiro’s appearance came off peacefully, the effort and expense required to protect controversial speakers is tearing the campus apart—exposing in the process whole sections of the faculty who don’t believe in free-speech.

The campus free-speech crisis has outrun state legislation designed merely to abolish speech codes and free-speech zones. Refusal to discipline disruptors is at the root of the escalating troubles. Unless educators and legislators tackle the need to discipline speaker shout-downs, classroom invasions, building takeovers, and the like, campuses will continue to spin out of control.

Before addressing recent developments, let’s consider the contrarian claim that there is no crisis of campus free-speech. Princeton historian, Julian Zelizer and Guardian editor David Shariatmadari argue just that. Yet both have virtually nothing to say about speech on campus. Instead, Zelizer worries that criticizing student censors will put a damper on campus activism. In this, Zelizer typifies the many faculty who overlook speech-suppression out of sympathy with the protesters’ politics. Of course this only aggravates the crisis. Shariatmadari seems to think conservatives’ access to the internet, cable news, and book publishing means that shooing them away from students doesn’t actually count as suppression. Yet the existence of freedom in society at large hardly excuses the campus monoculture. Sealing off schools from the rest of America is precisely what’s tearing us apart.

Campus liberals strolling placidly from one like-minded classroom to another have the luxury of dismissing shout-downs as isolated incidents. Those who depart from campus orthodoxies know better. Consider Matt Lewis’s chilling account of a single campus shout-down in context.

In the fall of 2016, Campus Republicans at the University of Minnesota painted a mural backing “Trump Pence in 2016,” and featuring the slogan, “Build the Wall.” Within an hour the painting was defaced and surrounded by protesters chanting “Hate Speech is not Free Speech.” As protests and violent threats escalated, Minnesota College Republican President Madison Faupel and her executive board stopped walking across campus alone or at night. Even university administrators began attacking the mural, in effect inciting anger toward the school’s conservative students.

To his credit, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler condemned the vandalization of the painting and reaffirmed the school’s commitment to free speech. But when Kaler set up a public meeting to discuss the campus climate, 100 chanting protesters stormed the stage and ended the event. The protesters condemned Kaler for protecting “hate speech” under the guise of free speech, then surrounded Faupel who was lucky to escape unhurt. Later that year Faupel was “doxed” by Antifa (i.e. her personal information was published to facilitate harassment).

The takeover of President Kaler’s “campus climate” event received no national publicity at the time. Last May, in “Year of the Shout-Down,” I tried to recount the many campus disruptions overlooked by the media, but I missed this incident too. Shout-downs are far more frequent than most people realize. More important, the Kaler shout-down was merely the most spectacular manifestation of an endemic campus climate of suppression at Minnesota. Ordinary ostracism and intimidation suffice to keep most University of Minnesota students in line, but drastic measures were required to silence the university’s president before he could restore a climate of open debate in the wake of the painting defacement. And the vandalism, threats, and disruptions were explicitly designed to disallow so-called hate speech, defined as the winning candidate’s slogan in the 2016 presidential race. So the Minnesota shout-down was no isolated incident but merely the most visible evidence of a de facto one-party monopoly at U. Minn., imposed by fear and force.

The shout-down crisis is very much alive today, witness last Friday’s high-profile disruption of former FBI Director James Comey at Howard University. Comey was delayed by angry chants as he began to address a large convocation, and disruptions continued throughout his talk. Administrators failed to quiet the protesters and no effort was made to remove them. When much of the auditorium took up the counter-chant, “Let him speak!” protestors replied with a slogan of their own: “White supremacy is not a debate!”

The disruptors were objecting to Comey’s earlier defense of police against accusations of racism by the Black Lives Matters Movement, as well as his claim that the post-Feguson atmosphere of hostility to police has inhibited law-enforcement and led to a spike in crime. This is at the center of contemporary American political debate, yet the protesters treated any divergence from their position as disallowed hate speech.

That means we’re well down the slippery slope. The constitutionally unrecognized category of “hate speech” is being used to disallow the slogan of the winning candidate for president, as well as an FBI Director’s defense of police against perfectly contestable charges of racism. Bans on so-called hate speech would thus spell the end of political debate in America.

The attempted shout-down of a conservative-libertarian debate over President Trump’s immigration policies last week at the University of Pittsburgh drew less attention than the Comey incident, but was just as revealing in its way. Ironically, anti-Trump protesters wearing party hats and sounding kazoos disrupted the debate at the moment President Trump’s policies were being criticized. Interruptions continued as the protesters made noise and used signs to block the audience’s view. When the disruptors refused to stop, police detained an unruly protester and escorted the rest out of the venue. Marlo Safi, president of the Pitt College Republicans was quoted saying that some of the protesters had interrupted other College Republican events. And the alleged disruptors have promised more of the same. Quite literally, these protesters want to disallow debate. Meanwhile, the idea that administrative discipline might put an end to shout-downs isn’t even on the radar.

Suspending or expelling students who shout-down speakers, disrupt campus events, or take over campus buildings is the single most important step that can be taken to end the free-speech crisis. Yet administrators will not act. Following shout-downs they typically claim to be looking into discipline, after which nothing happens. The exception is Claremont College, which this summer suspended five of the much larger number of students who blockaded an April, 2017 lecture by Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald.

Unfortunately, the salutary message sent by those suspensions has just been undermined by Claremont’s sister-college Pomona, which announced last week that despite the fact that its students “did block access to buildings” during the MacDonald event, the blockaders would face no punishment. Pomona used the absence of property damage or physical altercations to justify doing nothing, yet the Macdonald shut-down was one of the most severe speech disruptions of the year. Discipline is surely warranted on grounds that freedom of expression and assembly were quashed. Nor is Pomona’s airbrushed account of what happened during the blockade credible.

On top of that, Middlebury College, site of another of last school-year’s worst shout-downs, failed to properly punish anyone last May. Worse, Middlebury’s just-announced “interim” speaker policy effectively incentivizes the heckler’s veto. The vaguely worded regulation allows Middlebury to cancel events that pose an “imminent and credible threat to the community,” effectively allowing Antifa to silence invited speakers just by threatening a disturbance. This leaves things worse than they were last year.

Yet the most ominous development of the new school-year may have been at Oregon’s Reed College, where demonstrators have been disrupting classroom lectures. The Reed case shows how refusal to discipline shout-downs can escalate into far broader disruptions of a college’s daily functioning.

Reed College is that rare left-leaning school that retains a Western Civilization requirement for entering freshman. The course (Humanities 110) is a legend, and a reason many students choose Reed. Yet the first Hum 110 lecture of the year was cancelled when students protesting the course’s “Eurocentrism” disrupted class. A shouting match between students and protesters broke out at the next class, and at a third class another lecturer was forced to depart.

The Hum 110 requirement may soon be fatally weakened. Signs point to faculty capitulation to these disruptions. That will spell the end of Reed’s distinctive character, and the loss of a unique choice for American students. The backstory here is a typical tale of administrative weakness.

Protests began at Reed on September 26, 2016 in response to actor Isaiah Washington’s call for a national work boycott in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. As more than 400 marching “Reedies” boycotted classes, they briefly disrupted a Hum 110 lecture, a sign of things to come. Two days later protesting students from “Reedies Against Racism (RAR),” began surrounding the Hum 110 lecturer on stage during each class session. This intimidation of faculty ought not to have been tolerated, but the administration allowed it so long as protesters remained silent.

Distressed by President Trump’s victory, as well as racist bathroom graffiti, RAR occupied the admissions office in November, 2016. Reed President John Kroger criticized the takeover and threatened disciplinary proceedings, in response to which RAR occupied yet more administrative offices. Kroger then capitulated to some of RAR’s demands and apologized for his earlier criticisms, after which Reed spokesman Kevin Myers praised the takeover: “I really think Reed students have acted as a model for how change can happen.”

A few days later, leftist Reed students tore down posters advertising a talk by Kimberly Pierce, director of the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, the first film to sympathetically portray the cause of transgenderism. Pierce’s talk was shouted down for about 15 minutes with signs and slogans like “f*** this cis white bitch.” Even after she resumed, Pierce was hit with insults like “f*** your respectability politics” and “f*** you scared bitch.” The rationale for this bizarre attack on a pioneering cultural leftist by other leftists was that Pierce had not cast a trans actor in her film.

Reed’s Dean Nigel Nicholson wrote of his disappointment with the shout-down, eloquently explaining how even a single such incident could choke off campus debate by reducing visits from outside speakers and generally scaring people off of controversial topics. Yet the students who shouted Pierce down went unpunished.

Meanwhile, RAR continued to intimidate and harass Hum 110 lecturers. When associate professor Marat Grinberg asked RAR not to surround him during his talk, RAR redoubled its protest, driving Grinberg from the lecture hall. When assistant professor Lucia Martinez Valdiva, who describes herself as mixed-race and queer, pleaded with protesters not to surround her, RAR issued a chilling open letter accusing her of assorted intellectual crimes, from refusing to acknowledge Reed’s “anti-blackness” to “gaslighting” students (i.e. making students who disagree with her doubt their own rightness and common sense).

These accusations are important because RAR’s full set of demands includes the creation of a system in which minority students would control the hiring, ideology, and conduct of faculty, as well as much of Reed’s coursework. Race-sensitivity-training administered through “continuous mandatory workshops and conduct check-ins” is part of RAR’s plan, as is an expanded grievances process allowing students to trigger racial-bias investigations against professors. The ideological enforcement mechanisms demanded by RAR represent a thorough-going negation of academic freedom.

This brings us to the growing tendency of campus radicals to target, not merely visiting speakers, but professors, administrators, and fellow students.

Reedies Against Racism’s demands may sound extreme, but they are by no means unusual. KC Johnson reviewed demands issued by students on every campus that experienced a protest in the fall of 2015 (the protests set off by Mizzou, and the Halloween-costume flap at Yale). Virtually all protesting groups demanded administrative punishment for students who openly challenged the demonstrators’ beliefs; a school-wide curriculum dictated by minority-led student groups and sympathetic faculty; and control over faculty hires. Of course these demands are utterly incompatible with free speech and academic freedom. But note, these demands were targeted, not at outside speakers, but at the demonstrators’ faculty, student, and administrative opponents.

The typical demands of today’s protesters are the culmination of a decades-long transformation. Since the late 1960s, politicized programs of Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, Environmental Studies, etc. have been added to the conventional departments. At first these politicized “studies” programs were outliers. Over time, however, their numbers grew and their guiding assumptions spread to the traditional departments. The more radical protesters are trying to complete the transformation by driving out traditional liberal education and imposing the politicized “studies” ethos on the entire university.

The upsurge in attacks on visiting conservative speakers last year was driven in-part by anger at the election of President Trump. Yet the targeting of students, professors, and administrators that emerged in 2015 never fully disappeared and in fact is increasing, spurred on by the weak administrative response to the shout-downs and the sweeping ambitions of the radicals.

The disruption of day-to-day operations grows. Toward the end of last academic year, we saw not only targeting of professors, administrators, and students at Evergreen College but a building takeover at UC Santa Cruz that should have received more attention. The Santa Cruz takeover included demands (agreed to by the administration) that may well violate federal laws against segregated housing. Then there was the invasion of a Northwestern University sociology classroom late last school-year by students objecting to a presentation by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. This year and last Reed College students have been driving their own professors out of lecture halls, and Cornell students recently occupied a building to demand, among other things, a ban on hate speech.

Emails recently obtained by the Wall Street Journal reveal that numerous faculty and staff at Evergreen State College were endangered by last term’s protests. One staffer wrote that “the students are testing how much lawlessness will be tolerated” and “haven’t found a boundary yet.” The same could have been said last year at Reed College, which explains the escalating lecture disruptions this year. The most egregious interference with Hum 110 has stopped for now, but only because Reed’s administration belatedly initiated disciplinary proceedings.

Administrators at both Evergreen and Reed allowed intimidation and speech suppression by students to go unpunished, which only invited escalation and chaos. Northwestern permitted protesters to storm the class where the ICE agent was speaking on the understanding that students would silently demonstrate and not disrupt. The students drove out the agent chanting, “F*** ICE,” instead.

In short, while shout-downs of visiting conservatives continue apace, the failure to discipline disruptors is inviting a major escalation in the campus speech wars. Protesters hostile to free speech and academic freedom have a broader agenda: they want to transform the university into an ideological re-education camp for their foes. This puts the protesters at odds with many professors, administrators, and students, inviting sweeping campus chaos, Evergreen-style. In fact the internally-focused campus disruptions of fall 2015 are already returning, supercharged by the weak administrative response to last year’s shout-downs of outside speakers.

Education in classically liberal intellectual values is the long-run solution. But the single best way to turn back the growing chaos is to suspend or expel disruptors. Administrators are clearly not going to do that on their own, which is why the campus free-speech legislation I co-authored with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute should be adopted before the troubles escalate further.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected]

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