Free speech on the University of Missouri campus — supported at the highest levels by President Barack Obama — is scheduled to get another stern test Thursday evening.
This time, the words will be delivered by the conservative voice of Breitbart News Senior Editor-at-Large Ben Shapiro, who said this a few days ago about his visit to a campus roiled by racial tension:
“I’m not much older than these kids, but we’re not preparing kids for life — we’re preparing them for a future of whining pantywaist fascism. We need to fight that trend tooth and nail. Liberty is not a safe space.”
That blast was aimed at protesters including Concerned Student 1950, which has made a number of demands and taken several actions designed to bring more needed racial diversity to the campus.
Shapiro’s talk is sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation, which advertises “The conservative movement starts here” on its website.
Obama offered some insightful opinions right along these lines recently in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
The president discussed recent events at MU, which have included a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler, the forced resignation of President Tim Wolfe and several other racially related events that have left many black students scared and upset about their place on the MU campus.
“I care about civil rights and I care about kids not being discriminated against or having swastikas painted on their doors or nooses hung, thinking it’s a joke,” Obama said. “I think it’s entirely appropriate for any institution, including universities, to say, ‘Don't walk around in black face. It offends people. Don’t wear a headdress and beat your chest if Native American students have said, you know, ‘This hurts us. This bothers us.’ There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Then came this direct point from Obama, almost aimed at Shapiro’s speech and how it might be received at MU at this crucial time in the university’s history:
“But we also have these values of free speech. And it’s not free speech in the abstract. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And you know, you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue ’em, beat ’em.”
Harsh conservative voices have been supplying that kind of “free speech” far beyond the most celebrated incident of last week, when a photographer confronted students and a few faculty members who didn’t want him getting near protesters on the campus.
Butler has been the recipient of some attention for his family’s wealth.
A short story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned it this way: “... Butler’s father is Eric L. Butler, executive vice president for sales and marketing for the Union Pacific Railroad. His 2014 compensation was $8.4 million, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
The conservative Daily Wire website was far more direct in criticizing the hunger striker: “One of the catalysts of Missouri’s current state of ruin is none other than a super-rich millennial brat named Jonathan Butler.”
Local sports radio host Kevin Kietzman made the point repeatedly on his show last week. He claimed Butler’s family’s wealth should have been highly publicized and, if it had, events at MU would have played out far differently.
My conclusion: No, it wouldn’t. Simply having rich parents doesn’t dismiss the valid criticisms Butler and many other minority students had outlined about practices at MU.
The Breitbart website also used Zapruder-like slowed down video to question Butler’s claim that a car carrying president Wolfe struck the protester during a homecoming parade at MU.
“However, a look at video of the incident itself shows that Jonathan Butler actually rushes towards the car,” the article said.
The Concerned Student 1950 group also has found itself at the center of harsh criticism by a number of people, as have the black football players who effectively helped force Wolfe’s resignation by saying they would refuse to practice and play.
This week, one poll showed a pretty deep-seated rejection among Missourians of the actions taken by the protesters, MU players and Coach Gary Pinkel.
Obama had perhaps the best advice as he discussed the racially tinged situations occurring at MU and other college campuses.
He called on protesters not to shut out the voice of people who disagree with them — and vice versa.
“And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like if somebody says something that hurts my feelings that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. You know, and yes, does that put more of a burden on minority students or gay students or Jewish students or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them.
“But you’re not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society — that those students want, without taking it on, in a full and clear and courageous way.”
That’s great advice. It’s also tough advice to be followed by young minority college students who feel as if they have been marginalized and ignored for way too long.