If our reader mail is any indication, many on the left see the whole effort to limit free speech on campus as a right-wing fantasy. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Conservatives didn’t dream up the fact that a Middlebury professor got a concussion and whiplash last month as she tried to engage in a civil debate with conservative scholar Charles Murray.
They didn’t just imagine that the University of California, Berkeley canceled a February speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after a mob started smashing windows and lobbing Molotov cocktails.
Nor, though it does read like a parody, did they invent the April 12 Wellesley News editorial arguing that “Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech.”
So we hope that students and administrators will listen to what Sen. Bernie Sanders has said about this very real problem. When asked about Berkeley’s decision to cancel a speech by conservative performance artist Ann Coulter because they couldn’t guarantee her safety, Sanders called the effort to silence her “a sign of intellectual weakness.” He asked, “What are you afraid of — her ideas? Ask her the hard questions.”
It’s students themselves who are hurt by their own efforts to protect themselves from viewpoints they find offensive. How will they test what they believe and learn how to sharpen their arguments if they hear only from the like-minded? It isn’t only the most extreme speakers who spark protests. Former first lady Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are among those various liberal groups have tried to get disinvited.
Yet those who benefit the most from this hysteria are speakers like Coulter, who once suggested that 9/11 widows were milking their moment in the spotlight. Attention is oxygen to her, and if there’s anything she’d enjoy more than being able to claim that her words are just too powerful for the snowflakes to handle, it might be getting hustled off campus as buildings burn and brickbats fly. Because Berkeley is a state school, there is something to Coulter’s claim that keeping her from speaking is unconstitutional because it amounts to state censorship. As Bill Maher said on his HBO show, “Berkeley used to be the cradle of free speech. Now it’s just a cradle for (expletive) babies.”
Disrespect for free speech doesn’t come only from the left, of course, and doesn’t happen only on campus, either. It’s just part of the polarization we see across the political spectrum as Americans self-segregate on and offline. In fact, we’re becoming ever more scrupulous about blocking other viewpoints and those who hold them. But it’s hard to see how we’ll solve any of the other problems we face as long as that’s the case.