College campuses have become increasingly hostile grounds for political discourse. Citing safety concerns, student groups all over the country have seen their events cancelled by university administrators worried about violence on college campuses. Speakers who have managed to appear on campuses have found themselves harassed by student protestors, and have even faced violence by opposition groups. Take for example, Charles Murray’s attempt to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont. Not only was Murray shouted down with profanity by an enraged progressive student body, but Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger was physically assaulted for accompanying Murray on campus.
This disturbing trend has drawn national attention, and prompted a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. On Tuesday, June 20th, the committee met to discuss the volatile environment on college campuses in relation to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The committee heard from seven witnesses including two students who alleged free speech violations on their campuses, several college professors and administrators who have dealt with controversial events on their campuses, and two lawyers associated with First Amendment and hate speech issues. One of these lawyers was Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Cohen has been criticized for SPLC’s labeling of their political opponents as “hate groups,” a designation various progressive groups on college campuses have exploited to justify threatening the free speech of conservatives.
Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) opened the hearing by citing several particularly grievous violations of freedom of speech, including students who were arrested at Kellogg College for distributing the Constitution outside of the designated “free speech zone.” These outrageous actions were condemned by both Republican and Democratic senators alike. The First Amendment does not exist merely to defend opinions that everyone agrees with, it also protects those opinions which are controversial or offensive. Unfortunately, many on the Left only associate hate speech with conservative groups, and ignore hate speech by progressives. Senator Ted Cruz had it right when he said, “truth is far more powerful than force… if your ideas are right there is no need to muzzle the opposition.” College campuses ought to protect speech, because in doing so they’ll help further thoughtful debate.
A highlight of the hearing was the testimony of Zachary Wood, a student at Williams College and president of the organization Uncomfortable Learning. Although he identifies himself as a progressive liberal, Mr. Wood deliberately sought out conservative speakers to invite them to speak because he wanted to start a dialogue on campus. Wood eloquently defended campus free speech when he said “humanity is not limited to the views and values we admire, it also encompasses the views and values that we resist.” One controversial speaker invited by Wood was conservative commentator John Derbyshire. Predictably, the invitation caused a severe backlash and resulted in the president of the university unilaterally cancelling Derbyshire’s speech. The administration then immediately imposed new regulations for students who wished to invite speakers to campus.
Several of the school administrators testified that they have had to deal with violent opposition groups on their campus. UCLA Professor Eugene Volokh stated that groups who are trying to force a “heckler’s veto” must be strongly reprimanded. “Behavior that is rewarded is repeated… these thugs have to learn that their behavior is not acceptable.” While college administrators appearing before the committee were generally in favor of protected free speech, some did acknowledge that there are challenges in striking a balance between campus safety and free speech. Dr. Fanta Aw of American University stated that “freedom of expression is integral to the mission of higher education, however protecting it has become increasingly difficult due to our national climate, as well as changing views by younger students regarding the First Amendment.” With an increasingly polarized political climate, this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. It is essential that these universities and administrators continue protect speech on their campuses.
Not all the senators were as adamant about the defense of free speech. Citing a lack of resources on the part of the Berkeley police department, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) redirected the conversation towards the nature of the violent protestors involved, and away from First Amendment issues. Senator Feinstein’s attempt to pit public safety against free speech are misguided at best, and deceptive at worst. While it is important that college campuses remain safe environments for learning, safety must not be bought at the price of silencing minority views on campus. Richard Cohen of the SPLC went one step further, blaming much of the atmosphere on college campuses on the national climate post-election, and specifically the actions of the “alt-right” and white nationalism. He also defended an SPLC publication entitled The Battle for Berkeley, which claimed that “in the name of free speech, the alt-right is assaulting the ivory tower.” Attacks on free speech should not be partisan, but Cohen ignored many groups on the Left who have also been responsible for inciting violence both on college campuses and elsewhere. In fact, SPLC’s labeling of conservative organizations as “hate groups” has been connected to violence against conservative groups, including the 2012 FRC shooting by Floyd Lee Corkins II (who cited SPLC’s designation of Family Research Council as a “hate group”), and the most recent shooting in Alexandria involving GOP Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
Near the conclusion of the hearing, Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) condemned the President of Williams’ College Adam Falk. Senator Kennedy admonished Falk for treating progressive liberal campus groups and speakers differently than conservative groups and speakers, and called that sort of favoritism “intellectually dishonest.” Mr. Fredrick Lawrence also defended the role of universities hosting controversial speakers saying “[There should always] be a strong presumption in favor of the speech.” He emphasized that limits should be established only based on the intent of the speaker, never the substance or the content. This is an excellent standard that is well established in public policy.
Despite differing priorities regarding the protection of free speech on college campuses, it was encouraging to see a measure of bipartisanship in support of free speech at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. As a millennial college student, I am glad that there is a concerted effort in Congress to protect my right to free speech. While I was disappointed in the attempts of Senator Feinstein and Richard Cohen to shift blame, I am confident free speech on college campuses proved more persuasive. The right of free speech is a cornerstone in our society, and it must be protected if we are to continue to have meaningful discussion about other policy issues.