Disappearing free university speech

A frightening attack on free speech is taking place on a large enough number of American universities to give real concern for the loss of the concept.

In an article that may have abandoned to some extent its old unrelenting war against restrictions on free speech, even that seemed to have evil intent, the American Civil Liberties Union admits:

“Free speech rights are indivisible.

“Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend civil rights workers, anti-war protestors, LGBT activists, and others fighting for justice.

“For example, in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. City of Chicago, the ACLU successfully defended an ex-Catholic priest who had delivered a racist and anti-Semitic speech. The precedent set in that case became the basis for the ACLU’s defense of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, a conservative website, says [in] some high schools, universities and businesses where liberal ideas dominate, “[S]peech has become something they could not only object to but that needed to be stamped out — that was hate and had no place in the public square.”

When Dr. Charles Murray tried to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont two years ago, the moderator of the event was injured after a riot broke out when she and Murray left the lecture hall. Murray was a controversial figure for Middlebury’s leftwing activist students because he is a conservative, a scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.

Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute scholar has defended police tactics in the face of criticism by groups like Black Lives Matter, an anti-Black militant group. She has been mobbed at colleges like Claremont McKenna and the University of California, Los Angeles. At the U.C.L.A. event, one man yelled, “You have no right to speak”.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer and speaker has sometimes found himself the target of angry eruptions at universities. Last year at California State ’s Los Angeles campus, when Shapiro faced an anticipated similar situation, the university said it would no longer accommodate him because of security concerns; he spoke anyway, under police guard.

It is one thing for students to exercise a heckler’s veto — that is, to merely protest. But it is another issue altogether when they try to shut down a speaker at an institutionally-sanctioned event. They should be punished (after adequate due process, of course) by their college or university.

If at the event a speaker is physically assaulted, the assailants should be punished – perhaps even with expulsion from the university given the circumstances.

But according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 2016 set a record for the number of controversial speakers who were opposed to be heard on campuses.

To be sure, not all of the attempts succeeded — the number catalogued is 42. It is still but a small fraction of the many outsiders who give addresses at colleges and universities each year. But on the other hand, the real number of rejected speakers is certainly much higher, once we add in all the people not invited in the first place because some member of this or that committee objects to their views, or because campus authorities feared trouble.

But even one would be too many.

The university has come to mean “an institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects and typically having the power to confer degrees. But an important idea in the definition of a university is the notion of academic freedom. The first documentary evidence of that concept comes from early in the life of the University of Bologna which adopted an academic charter, the Constitutio Habita, in 1155 or 1158.

That codicil guaranteed the right of a traveling scholar to unhindered passage in the interest of educational pursuits. Today that claim has become the origin of “academic freedom”, widely recognized internationally. It was again enshrined when on 18 September 1988, 430 university rectors signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, marking the 900th anniversary of Bologna’s foundation.

In The Friends of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Hall, writing under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre, was an English writer best known for her The Life of Voltaire, first published in 1903. (The quotation is often misattributed to Voltaire himself rather than Hall’s illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs. But Hall’s quotation is often cited to describe the principle of freedom of speech.]

Nowhere is the principle, should the dictum be adhered more strictly, than on a college or university campus, which after all, is constituted as a place for the free exchange of ideas.


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