by Victor Riches
April 18, 2019

Way too many of today’s college students have an alarmingly deficient understanding of the U.S. Constitution. This is particularly true of the First Amendment. Rather than appreciate the inherent beauty and value of free speech, including speech they find disagreeable, many students think they should be perennially shielded from dissenting opinions. Some go so far as to shout down speakers and even resort to violence in order to avoid being subjected to new ideas, much like a baby being weaned off its bottle. However, all is not lost. A recent incident at the University of Arizona shows that there is still hope in the effort to defend the First Amendment.

Until this week, the storyline has largely been the same. Right-leaning speaker is invited to college campus. Student protestors shout the speaker down, depriving him or her of their freedom of speech. University administrators cower. Student protestors face no consequences. Ideas are not heard, public debate is squelched, and the First Amendment is weakened.

One of the most egregious examples occurred in March 2017 at Vermont’s Middlebury College. Charles Murray, a well-known political scientist, was invited by a conservative student group to speak on campus. Rather than listen to his lecture before forming an opinion, more than 100 students instead opted to shout down Murray, pulled fire alarms to stop his speech and violently pushed Murray and his faculty interviewer, causing her to suffer a concussion. The consequences for this violent silencing of speech? A slap on the wrist for 67 students. At the University of Michigan, a debate on Black Lives Matter was effectively shut down when 100 protesters forced their way into the already-at-capacity room, shouting obscenity-laced tirades. And on the other side of the country, UC Berkeley canceled a talkby political provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos following riots by “150 masked agitators,” giving in to the anti-speech activists.

Kowtowing to the mob and denying free speech is never the appropriate course of action. After all, universities exist in large part to prepare young adults for the “real world” – a world of work, bills, responsibilities and, of course, disagreements. When university administrators and faculty cater to the juvenile desire to not have to hear words with which one disagrees, they are doing a monumental disservice to the students themselves as well as the taxpayers who will soon be employing those very same students.  

Fortunately, common sense can still prevail on campus. For example, University of Arizona students recently invited two border-patrol agents to speak at a Career Day presentation about their careers in law enforcement. A group of students who claimed to be offended by the agents’ presence set out to disrupt the event and began yelling low-brow insults such as “murderers,” the “murder patrol,” and an “extension of the KKK.” Several protesters even followed the agents to their cars, continuing the chant of “murder patrol” and “We won’t stop until you get off our campus.” The protestors succeeded in thwarting speech. (Stanley Kurtz details the event at National Review Online here.) 

What happened next, however, just might be a turning point in today’s campus free speech crisis, as Kurtz explains. “Instead of rolling over, UA campus police filed criminal misdemeanor charges of ‘interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution’ against three of the students, while a third was also charged with “threats and intimidation.” UA President Robert Robbins also took a strong stand for the First Amendment by saying, “Student protest is protected by our support for free speech but disruption is not.”

The U of A followed campus free speech legislation developed by the Goldwater Institute and passed into law last year. Our measure is simple: it ensures free expression at public universities and establishes consequences for those individuals who forcibly inhibit the free speech rights of others. Just like in the real world.

It is this defense of free speech by the U of A that could help turn the tide back in favor of the preservation of First Amendment freedoms on college campuses. But if not, if other universities continue to cave to the whims of anti-free speech zealots, the value of our universities as institutions of higher learning will surely die a slow death. And the constitutional rights we all hold so dear will diminish with them.

Victor Riches is President and CEO of the Goldwater Institute.

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