Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A University Stands Up for Free Speech — and Itself

By Elliot Kaufman
Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Imagine if radical campus activists had to face the consequences of their actions. Imagine if they could no longer suppress and shut down speakers with impunity. Imagine if a college administrator grew a backbone and defended his institution from the barbarians at the gates.

We’re not there yet. But Claremont McKenna College, a prominent liberal-arts school in Southern California, is at least taking action. The school has suspended five students who led attempts to shut down a college-sponsored lecture by Heather Mac Donald, the pro-police conservative commentator, in April. Three will be suspended for a full year, while two will be suspended for a semester. Two more will be placed on conduct probation.

The students, along with many others from the Claremont colleges and outside the university, blockaded the lecture hall where Mac Donald was set to speak, forcing the event to be moved and livestreamed from a secret location. In a statement, Claremont McKenna explained that “the blockade breached institutional values of freedom of expression and assembly” and “deprived many of the opportunity to gather, hear the speaker, and engage with questions and comments.”

Claremont McKenna should be applauded, first for inviting Mac Donald to speak, and second for taking a stand in defense of the idea of the university. It could have taken the easy way out, slapping all the protest leaders on the wrists with a mandatory course or probation to put an end to the story. That’s what Middlebury College did when its students shut down an event featuring Charles Murray, the libertarian social scientist, and in the process assaulted Professor Allison Stranger, who ended up with a concussion.

In fact, nobody ever seems to get punished for preventing the free exchange of ideas on a college campus. Unwilling to anger student radicals and their defenders in the media, college administrators routinely back down. They appease the crocodile, hoping that he will be grateful for the school’s leniency and perhaps eat it last.

But appeasement has not worked. All across the country, student activists have become emboldened, trusting that they can do whatever they want, so long as they claim the moral high ground. After all, they only have to label a conservative as a “white supremacist” and they are free to take over campus and suppress her views. Their schools are too weak and fearful to stop them.

This is a sick state of affairs that should not continue. Claremont McKenna has shown that it is possible to take a stand. There is no reason why schools cannot suspend students who shut down campus speeches. Repeat offenders should be expelled. Anyone who participates in a violent protest should also be expelled. All schools should join Claremont McKenna in endorsing the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression, which declare that the “University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

If, after that, a few radicals still seek to break the rules, let them suffer the consequences of satisfying their confused consciences. The rest of the student body — the ones who don’t want to spend the year back home with their parents — will get the message: You can speak and protest all you want, but you cannot prevent someone else from speaking.

If conservative protesters force a Marxist student organization to cancel its speaker event, they should also be suspended. This is about more than protecting conservative speakers or “viewpoint diversity.” It is not even best framed as a matter of “free speech.” It is, quite simply, about repelling a growing assault on the idea of the university. In silencing lecturers and suppressing ideas, the students behind this assault place free inquiry within ever-more-circumscribed boundaries, necessarily perverting the pursuit of the truth that has always been academia’s sacred mission. If criticism of Black Lives Matter is out of bounds, for example, then what will separate the academy from the public square? Only the lack of personal responsibility.

Allan Bloom, that great defender of the university, explained its mission far better than I can:

The question that every young person asks, ‘Who am I?,’ the powerful urge to follow the Delphic command, ‘Know thyself,’ which is born in each of us, means in the first place ‘What is man?’ And in our chronic lack of certainty, this comes down to knowing the alternative answers and thinking about them. Liberal education provides access to these alternatives, many of which go against the grain of our nature or our times. The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.

Bloom wrote that “liberal education puts everything at risk and requires students who are able to risk everything.” But as he surely knew, it also requires courage on the part of teachers and administrators. Teachers must create a classroom that can bring students into contact with the alternative answers, and administrators must set and enforce rules that sustain teachers and students in their proper purpose.

In suspending students who deliberately shut down a campus speech, Claremont McKenna has stood up in defense of free speech and of itself. Let others follow.

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