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Batavick: Colleges becoming threats to free speech

There is no room across our broad spectrum of political beliefs for those who stifle discourse and thwart First Amendment rights. The epidemic of outrageous student behavior on college campuses needs to stop. The most recent episode was at the University of Notre Dame where dozens of students walked out of Vice President Mike Pence's commencement speech while others booed him. Pence was in the midst of criticizing campuses for fostering "speech codes, safe spaces, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness ― all of which amounts to the suppression of free speech." He called these practices "destructive of learning and the pursuit of knowledge," and he's right.

Earlier in May, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a commencement address at historically black Bethune-Cookman University where she faced jeers, and some students stood and turned their backs to her. It is true that some of this behavior was a reaction to her earlier statement that founders of historically black colleges and universities were "real pioneers" of school choice, betraying an ignorance about a time when black students weren't permitted to attend white colleges in the South and elsewhere. Regardless, a cabinet member didn't deserve this kind of disrespect.

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On April 27, the University of California at Berkeley canceled the planned speech of conservative commentator Ann Coulter because of fears of violence. Coulter has been a frequent guest on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," and their exchanges have enlightened political discourse. Maher defended Coulter's right to speak and reminded us that during the 1960s anti-Vietnam War and free speech movement, Berkeley "used to be the cradle of free speech, and now it's just the cradle for (expletive) babies." He then compared the cancellation of Coulter's talk to "the liberals' version of book burning."

Coulter's experience followed the February cancellation of a speech at Berkeley by conservative agitator and then-Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Thugs wearing masks protested Yiannopoulos by breaking windows and setting fire to a propane tank, and officials canceled the event for reasons of public safety.

There is still a great deal of anger in the wake of President Donald Trump's election and the furtherance of his radical agenda, but that is no reason to trample on our tradition of free speech. We have many other avenues available for protest, including the pages of this newspaper, marches, attendance at town halls sponsored by our elected representatives, and letters to Congress. Of course, the ultimate means of protest will take place at polling booths in November 2018 when 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be up for grabs.

Aside from the discontent with Trump's administration, there is a deeper and much more troubling reason for recent campus protests. In 2016, McLaughlin & Associates surveyed 800 students at colleges across the country. The study was sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale and its subject was attitudes toward free speech on campus. An astounding 51 percent of students favored campus speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty. Sixty-three percent favored requiring professors to use "trigger warnings" to alert students to material that they might find uncomfortable. This would include references to rape, misogyny and racial prejudice — even if found in classic literature.

The study dug deeper and found that one-third of the students polled could not even identify the First Amendment as the part of the Constitution that protected free speech. Thirty-five percent thought the First Amendment does not protect "hate speech," while 30 percent of those who identified as "liberal" said the First Amendment is outdated.

Where did this country go wrong? Are we no longer teaching civics and the principles of American government? Have colleges muzzled the free marketplace of ideas that has always been the cornerstone of academic freedom?

One of the purposes of education is to introduce students to uncomfortable ideas, to challenge their assumptions, and to forge critical thinking skills in the red hot coals of debate. If college administrators disagree with this, then they are anti-intellectual. I urge all educators from high school to college to get back to teaching the basic tenets of our republic. Ironically, an iconic quote from English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall sums up the key rationale behind this issue: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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