April 7, 2020

Not Quite Free Speech

By Stephen Tuttle | May 13, 2017

Our publicly funded universities and colleges are having a bit of a problem with that pesky constitutional free-speech business. Some students attending those institutions seem to have no clue at all. 

These schools — considered an arm of the government because of their public funding — and some of their faculty and student body, have decided they have every right to abridge free speech on their campuses. And they do it with alarming regularity. 

Speakers are invited, either by the school or some student group, and it doesn't take long for the protests to begin — especially if the invited speaker is a conservative or, even worse, an actual Republican.

Not content to control outside speakers, 60 percent of these schools now have “speech codes” restricting what students can say to and about each other.

There are several categories of speaking engagements. Some are sponsored by student groups on campus, some are invited to address a particular class, and some are invited by some part of the college administration. And then there's the commencement address to graduating seniors: the Super Bowl of college speeches. 

A speaker might be invited because of interesting life or professional experiences, social position, or an interesting perspective on history or current events. 

It doesn't really matter anymore. Protest groups, sometimes small and sometimes large, will gather to announce their list of grievances. They will picket, chant, and protest. In some cases, they shout down the invited speaker, ironically using what they believe are their rights to prevent someone else from exercising theirs.

A note here about the University of California at Berkeley, which is a special case. Every speaker, on virtually any issue, generates protests there. Berkeley folks have been doing this for a long time. They like to call the school the birthplace of the free speech movement, though some ancient Greeks would likely beg to differ.

At Berkeley, the left protests everything, and now counter-protesters show up to confront them. Anarchists, wearing their cute little ninja outfits, join the festivities mostly to throw rocks and start fires. Their only philosophy is to create mayhem, regardless of the issue. Their presence invites the neo-Nazis and other ultra-right troublemakers, and what started as a protest becomes a riot. Almost every time.

Some would argue that the student protests are in the best tradition of free speech. Certainly the non-violent activities fit that category. Standing up for beliefs is an important part of our cultural heritage. But violence, interruptions, and attempts to completely silence unpopular thought … ? Not so much.  

Silencing invited speakers happens more often than we'd think. A dozen times in the last two years, student protests have prompted schools to change commencement speakers. Fair enough. Commencements are a day of celebration for graduates, so let them hear whom they want to hear.   

It does not, however, explain the two dozen other speakers who also have been invited, then canceled, for a variety of other speaking engagements. 

Most troubling, those speakers all have one thing in common: They're all Republicans, or at least, conservatives. If you worked for a noted GOPer or are a supporter of conservative ideas, your invitation likely will be at risk.

To be fair, some invitees are truly offensive to most everyone. Those spewing hatred, encouraging violence, and telling outright lies — like Holocaust deniers — need not be invited in the first place. But most of the protested speakers don't fit those categories. And extreme views from the left rarely receive the same treatment. Maxine Waters is welcome; Condoleezza Rice is not.

That's how absurd it has become. Former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice probably has some interesting insights for graduates. It really shouldn't matter whether you agreed with her politics or not. How she went from an aspiring concert pianist to war planner could be a story worth hearing. She withdrew as a commencement speaker at Rutgers a couple years ago after protesting students claimed she was a murderer.

Rice is just the most famous of the disinvited, part of a fairly long list of Republican politicians or policy wonks banished from the lecture halls of academia. They are called racists, bigots, misogynists, homophobes, xenophobes, war criminals, and worse.

If a speaker survives the protest phalanx but veers dangerously away from proper orthodoxy, schools have a list of “trigger words” that send the greatly offended scurrying off to “safe rooms” where they can be sheltered from the horror of viewpoints other than their own. It's a solution resolving a problem that didn't exist in the first place.

Having the “wrong” political perspective or background shouldn’t disqualify someone from being heard. Both the left and the right should agree on that. Those believing they can exercise their speech rights by depriving others of theirs need a First Amendment refresher course. It's surprising our universities don't have a class like that. 

 

 

 

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