The racial troubles at the University of Missouri that spilled over onto other college campuses brought with them a disturbing element — the denial of free speech. The well-meaning minority students, who appeared to have a valid case, violated long-held standards of civility and acceptability when they didn't allow others to also speak; to transform their haranguing monologues into a shared dialogue. In one instance they clashed with a journalist from ESPN. As he argued his First Amendment rights, they chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go." This amplified an alarming trend.
In October, Wesleyan University's student government voted to cut funding for the campus newspaper because it had published an opinion piece questioning the tactics of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. In late August, five presidential aspirants, both Democrat and Republican, had their stump speeches disrupted by organized dissent. Some protesters interrupted to demand citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally. Others chanted, "Black Lives Matter," to protest the seemingly indiscriminate killing of black males by law enforcement. Jamie Hall, spokesperson for the group Unity Vegas that assaulted Jeb Bush's talk, said, "Sometimes you have to kick in the door by interrupting. Then it opens new opportunities and conversations." I understand that, but her opportunity and conversation were at the expense of someone else's, and that's not how we are meant to behave in a civil society.
Comedians Bill Maher, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld are wary of performing on college campuses because today's students object to jokes about women's or minority issues. And if the "wrong" person is asked to speak at commencement, students have protested until the invitee withdraws to avoid embarrassment. This has happened with both Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state.
What is going on here? These campus trends are completely unacceptable and antithetical to everything a university should represent. It is also part of a growing problem across academia, and threatens to warp the minds of a whole generation. Ironically, its origins are in the politics of the left.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, the Free Speech movement, begun at the University of California, Berkeley, was a source of oxygen for both the anti-war and civil rights movements. But over the years, the left has welcomed other aggrieved parties — women, sexual assault victims, the LGBT community — into its commodious tent. However, each has demanded its own "safe space," free from the thoughts of those not of the same persuasion. One black protester complained about a "typically white media who don't understand the importance of respecting black spaces." What's left out of this harsh equation is that no space in this nation can ever be free of the First Amendment and free expression.
Today's youth need to understand that free speech isn't just speech that you like and don't consider threatening. All have a right to express themselves, except when their statements are overtly dangerous, as in maliciously yelling fire in a crowded theater, or obscene. With the rampant profanity now acceptable in movies and TV, the latter offense is difficult to police, but X-rated language must not be forced on unwilling listeners.
As with many societal ills, the problem lies in education. It first begins in the home where children are coddled; told too often that they are exceptional; and that the world should bend to their wills. Then in school, it becomes magnified as teachers, lacking in classroom management skills, allow students to control the learning environment. Or, as in the recent episode in South Carolina, have to resort to calling law enforcement to deal with a disruptive student. Is it any wonder that when some of these children reach college or the workplace, they believe that they own every prerogative?
Added to this is the failure of most states to emphasize civic education, in which children learn to value the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. In many schools, civics is now taught in a glancing way, or has been conflated with U.S. history.
Opinions and beliefs, even those we may find threatening because of their novel or foreign nature, should be allowed to careen and bump into each other in the marketplace of ideas. The truth will out. It always does.
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Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.