Between the White House Right and the Campus Left, Can the First Amendment Survive 2017?
We’ve reached a mind-boggling place when the woman who made the deeply sympathetic trans film Boys Don’t Cry gets hooted off a campus. This has to stop.
It’s been a bad year so far for free speech on campus, and not just at Berkeley: Students all over the country pressured university administrators to discipline dissident professors, retaliated against journalists who offended them, and waged war on right-leaning speakers.
College campuses are supposed to be zones of maximum toleration, where everyone can speak their mind without fear of formal punishment. But while many university leaders remain committed to the principles of free expression and unfettered discussion—on paper at least—their students are increasingly hostile to the view that uncomfortable speech belongs on campus.
Let’s get something out of the way up front: No, leftist college students are not the most serious threat the First Amendment is facing right now. That distinction belongs to President Donald Trump, who was abusing the law for the purposes of attacking his critics even before he became the most powerful person in the world. Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to expand the scope of libel laws—“something that we’ve looked at,” according to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus—in a manner that would invariably erode protections for the press.
But in order for the American people to prevent Trump from overthrowing the First Amendment, the next generation of political leaders, businessmen, and activists must be capable of providing an intellectual, moral, and legal defense of free speech. Unfortunately, too many students at some of the most elite institutions of higher learning have become radicalized against free speech. Their illiberal activities do their classmates a disservice, and ultimately make it harder to effectively counter Trump’s anti-free speech rhetoric.
Here are five of the worst moments for free speech on campus in the 2016-2017 school year.
1. Charles Murray Attacked at Middlebury. In March, Charles Murray, a conservative author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, visited Middlebury College for the purposes of discussing his most recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The book, which chronicles the economic frustrations of white working-class Americans—and why they might have voted for Trump—deserves to be taken seriously.
But Middlebury students, whose average household income is $244,000, strenuously rejected the opportunity to learn something about lower-income voters. That’s because Murray is also the author of 1994’s The Bell Curve, which made the controversial claim that intelligence is a racially inherited trait.
If Murray’s ideas are wrong, then an elite college campus is the perfect place to challenge them. And indeed, the event was setup as a conversation between Murray and a capable foe, liberal political scientist Allison Stanger.
The conversation ended before it could even begin, as students screamed over Murray, preventing him from speaking. As Murray and Stanger left the auditorium, they were mobbed and assaulted by protesters, resulting in a trip to the emergency room for Stanger.
“This was the saddest day of my life,” Stanger later wrote in a statement.
2. Kimberly Peirce Harassed at Reed College. Kimberly Peirce doesn’t seem like someone who would normally provoke the ire of the social justice left. A queer, gender-fluid film director, Peirce is the creator of the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, which told the true story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man. The film, in fact, was a milestone: among the first to depict the humanity and suffering of trans people.
One might have expected Peirce to be well-received among the socially liberal students at Reed College. But when she visited campus last December to screen the film and discuss it, students shouted her down with unbelievably vile language. “You don’t fucking get it,” and “fuck this white cis bitch,” were just two of the comments.
Yesterday’s groundbreaking portrayals of trans people are today’s problematic appropriations of marginalized culture, it seems. The protagonist of Boys Don’t Cry is played by Hilary Swank, instead of an actual trans person—this is trans erasure, in the eyes of some students, who explained that they wanted to strip away “Peirce’s sense of entitlement.” By harassing her.
Lucia Martinez, an English professor at Reed who identifies as gay and mixed-race, posted a comment on an article about the controversy in which she admitted, “I am intimidated by these students.”
“I am scared to teach courses on race, gender, or sexuality, or even texts that bring these issues up in any way—and I am a gay mixed-race woman,” she wrote. “There is a serious problem here… and I’m at a loss as to how to begin to address it, especially since many of these students don’t believe in either historicity or objective facts.”
3. Students Destroy a 9/11 Memorial Display at Occidental. The night before the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Occidental College’s Republican Club planted 2,997 small flags in the campus quad—one for each victim of the terrorist attacks. They did so with the permission of college officials.
By the next morning, the display had been destroyed. Hundreds of flags were trampled and broken. Others were discovered in the trash.
It’s no mystery what happened: Members of the Republican Club caught the perpetrators in the act. They were students.
A student group, the Coalition for Diversity an Equity, offered a partial explanation.
“When this institution allows thousands of American flags to be placed in the center of campus, it speaks volumes to the students that have lived their lives under the oppression of this flag,” said the group.
Another student group, Occidental Students United Against Gentrification, said this: “We have no tolerance for stolen land, colonizers, oppression, genocides, xenophobia, and/or erasure of culture/people (aka U.S. nationalism).”
It’s vexing that students were willing to violate the free expression rights of other members of the Occidental community. It’s positively astounding that they did so with such reckless disregard for the victims of 9/11.
4. Heather MacDonald Censored at Claremont McKenna College. The best thing that can be said for students’ behavior during the Heather MacDonald incident is that at least no one was sent to the hospital. MacDonald, a conservative writer and thinker at the Manhattan Institute, tried to give a talk to Claremont McKenna students about her new book, which criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement.
One can object to MacDonald’s ideas—I certainly do—while still recognizing that students who want to hear her speak should get that chance. It’s quite possible that even her critics have something to learn from her.
But that’s not what happened. Irate protesters barred the entrance to the building where MacDonald was supposed to talk. Police officers actually had to smuggle her out of a back door.
Afterward, students at nearby Pomona College denounced the administration for allowing MacDonald to come to campus. They also explicitly rejected free speech on the grounds that the concept is nothing more than a tool for advancing white supremacy.
5. Berkeley Is Burning. Which brings us to Berkeley. The former home of the Free Speech Movement is now ground zero for the activist movement against free speech. Local activists—not all of them students—have set fires and smashed windows in order to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. And their threats to do the same to Ann Coulter led the university to reschedule, and ultimately cancel, her speech.
The alt-right, of course, is no better behaved. Pro-Trump white nationalists recently held a rally near Berkeley; when anti-fascist demonstrators appeared, some of the alt-right members actually attacked them.
In a free society that extends equal speech rights to protesters and controversial speakers, pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces should be able to occupy the same campus spaces without violence breaking out. Demonstrators should be able to make symbolic stands against right-wing pundits while still respecting the pundits’ rights to speak—and other students’ rights to hear them speak. The fact that this isn’t happening anymore is a tragedy for enlightened democracy.
“These incidents have not shut down a single bad idea,” wrote the American Civil Liberty Union’s Lee Rowland. “When you choose censorship as your substantive argument, you lose the debate.”