October 26, 2019
By Jonathan Butcher

Sympathy is hard to find in conversations about politics. But at recent events on college campuses, this response is in especially short supply toward disruptive mobs with a political axe to grind. For the second time in two weeks, demonstrators intent on canceling an event have shouted down an invited speaker, and on both occasions, observers on the right and left, on- and off-campus, were quick to condemn the censorship.   

On Wednesday, a student mob at UPenn blocked a speech from former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency Director Tom Homan. A video posted on CampusReform.org shows students shouting over at least two adults who tried to maintain order.

The protesters had already circulated a petition demanding that campus officials only invite certain speakers to campus. This attempt to show support for “human rights” ironically issued a totalitarian order that some government officials are not allowed. 

When the UPenn disruptors managed to stop the event just as it was to begin, the reaction from other students was not sympathetic.

Homan told Fox News, “The sad part is – I was watching the reaction on their [students’] faces – they were [as] disgusted as I was,” Homan said. “They were there to ask pointed questions.”

UPenn’s College Republicans Communications Director Corey Paredes told CampusReform: “[I]t is disappointing that such a right would be used in an attempt to silence the speech of an upstanding civil servant.”

Even PEN America, a progressive organization, said the UPenn demonstration was out of line. PEN told Inside Higher Ed, “[The] protesters here both violated the rights of other audience members, and squandered an opportunity to challenge a former public official, rendering the possibility of engaging in debate, criticism, or even shaming, effectively null.”

Earlier this month at Georgetown University Law School, a group that included law students shouted down acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. McAleenan wanted to “start a dialogue” but “apparently, [I] didn’t get that opportunity.”

I wrote in the Detroit News last week that the shoutdown was quickly criticized:

Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute, the group hosting Georgetown’s event, tweeted, “Deeply saddened that protestors decided to interrupt @DHSMcAleenan during his speech at a conf organized by @MigrationPolicy @cliniclegal @GeorgetownLaw. We need to hear from diverse perspectives in a democratic society, and the audience lost the chance to engage w/him on policy.”

Erica Goldberg, a visiting scholar for Georgetown Law School’s Center for the Constitution, tweeted: “Respecting the rights of protestors does not mean allowing them to hijack events that consist entirely of the exchange of ideas and are thus clearly part of academic freedom and free speech values. Universities should honor their primary goal of education, not social justice.”

William M. Treanor, the Dean of Georgetown University Law Center issued a statement saying, “We share our partners’ regret that the audience did not get to hear from the Secretary…Georgetown Law is committed to free speech and expression and the ability of speakers to be heard and engage in dialogue.”

Georgetown and UPenn are private schools, so school officials must decide whether to make an example of the disruptive students that would encourage others not to block events. But state lawmakers reading the headlines on campus activity should consider the policies protecting expression at public colleges from states such as Alabama and Wisconsin. In those states, legislation and university policies direct school officials to consider consequences for protesters that violate others’ free speech rights.

It’s good to know that campus officials object to shout-downs after the incidents occur, but school leaders must explain that this behavior is unacceptable before the events take place, too. Incorporating discussions about the importance of free speech into freshman orientation and adding the school’s commitment to free inquiry to student handbooks are also valuable provisions found in state legislative proposals in places such as Arizona and North Carolina.

After mobs apply the heckler’s veto, students who wanted to attend an event should insist that they want to listen and be heard as well. Still, the adults on campus should be protecting free speech for everyone so that students have more options than to try to speak out after it’s gone.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

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