Much is being made in the media about violent protests against conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulis and Ann Coulter being invited to speak at Berkeley and other college campuses. It is being billed as a growing intolerance of free speech on the part of college students.
But I believe something else is going on here. A recent Los Angeles Times article detailed how radical fringe groups on both the left and right converged on the UC Berkeley campus to take advantage of the protests occurring there. These groups show up at scheduled peaceful protests and marches in order to incite violence and get media coverage. (“For many at Berkeley rally, it wasn’t really about Trump or free speech: They came to make trouble,” Paige St. John, The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2017)
Administrators are then forced to shut down events in order to protect the students, thus giving conservatives cause to cry foul on the grounds of free speech infringement. Similar skirmishes occurred shortly after the election of Donald Trump. These troublemakers notably cover their faces and wear black. And they give peaceful protesters, who also have free speech rights, a bad name.
I realize there have been cases of college students themselves shutting down speaking engagements, such as the appearance of Black Lives Matter critic Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College. It should be noted that CMC President Hiram Chodosh stated in no uncertain terms that the college is a place for honest inquiry and exploration of ideas, and the blocking of campus buildings would not be tolerated. Furthermore, MacDonald’s speech did take place and was streamed so that those blocked from the venue could listen to her remarks.
I must confess that I’m disturbed by the types of speakers that conservative student groups have been inviting to their colleges and universities. With the exception of MacDonald, who does have some valid research to back up her opinions, the speakers that have been the focus of so much media attention are hate-spewing extremists such as the aforementioned Coulter and Yiannopoulis. Or alternatively, we have Charles Murray, whose dubious “scholarship” has posited that blacks have lower IQs than whites. If I were a college student, I would certainly protest the appearance of such figures on my campus.
Yet I do believe firmly in our First Amendment and the right of people to say what they wish, no matter how hateful, to their chosen audience. I am old enough to remember the famous 1977 case in which a small group of Neo-Nazis demanded the right to march through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois. The case ignited a national furor, and the Nazis’ rights were defended by the ACLU. Although the group was successful in gaining a permit to march through Skokie, they ultimately decided on a Chicago march instead. The positive thing to come out of the incident was the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. (“Remembering the Nazis in Skokie,” Geoffrey R. Stone, Huffington Post, May 20, 2009, updated May 25, 2011)
But let’s not kid ourselves. College students are not becoming intolerant of “alternative viewpoints” so much as protesting the continued demeaning of people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. They have a right, on their own campuses where they are paying tuition, to express their disapproval of speakers to whom they object – if they do so in a peaceful manner that does not infringe on the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker. It is a challenge for college administrations to assure that these disagreements are allowed to play out peacefully and without outside interference from fringe elements. But it’s a challenge they must rise to for the safety and freedom of all.