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Silencing Disfavored Speech

As further evidence that the campus woke persist in trying to determine what may, and may not, be said on university campuses, activist students at UC Hastings School of Law shut down the appearance of conservative legal scholar Ilya Shapiro at a March 1st event organized by the Federalist Society.

Shapiro, incoming Executive Director of Georgetown’s Center for the Constitution, it will be remembered, experienced the collective wrath and opprobrium of his own school when he tweeted comments criticizing Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a black woman as the new Supreme Court justice. In a now-deleted January 26th tweet Shapiro remarked that, in his view, “Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?”

The reference to a “lesser black woman” proved to be a most unfortunate choice of words, which Shapiro later admitted, and was interpreted by many on the Georgetown campus as being particularly egregious, racist, and indicative of the type of white supremacist ideology which assumes the inferiority of black people and questions both affirmative action and campaigns for equity and inclusion. For his tweets, Shapiro was denounced by the law school’s dean, fellow faculty, and students, including members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) to call for Shapiro’s firing.

So, in March, when Shapiro arrived to speak with liberal Hastings faculty member, Rory Little, at the event entitled “The Breyer Vacancy: The Rise of Contentious All or Nothing Battles for Supreme Court Nominations,” activist students associated with Hastings’ BLSA had already planned to express their dissatisfaction with Shapiro’s views by shutting down the event and utilizing the “heckler’s veto” to silence him for his ideological transgressions.

During the entire 53-minute event, student demonstrators in the classroom, some holding placards reading “I Am Not Lesser,” “Support Black Women,” and “Black Women Matter,” blocked the podium while Shapiro tried to speak and screamed “Black lawyers matter” while pounding the desks and drowning out any speech. When Hastings’ Dean of Academics, Morris Ratner, pleaded with the students to let Shapiro speak and reminded them they were violating the school’s code of conduct, one unconvinced student screamed, “Remove him off the fucking campus, because that’s what we want.”

In the wake of this embarrassing event, top Hastings administrators did issue a statement in which they did make clear that “Disrupting an event to prevent a speaker from being heard is a violation of our policies and norms, including the Code of Student Conduct and Discipline . . . which the College will—indeed, must—enforce,” a reasonable and justified warning. But that admonition seemed to be neutralized by the feckless language that followed, a sentiment that suggested that certain groups on campus had to be equipped “with the knowledge and skills to engage respectfully, thoughtfully, and sensitively with each other and with a wide array of theories, identities, political viewpoints, and perspectives,” since the students at this particular event, at least, clearly wished to foreclose any other views than their own.

This rude and unacceptable behavior on the part of the Hastings brats is not surprising given a 2017 national survey of 1,500 current undergraduate students at four-year colleges and universities conducted by John Villasenor of Brookings Institute. When asked if it is acceptable for students to shout down and disrupt a speech by a “very controversial speaker . . . known for making offensive and hurtful statements,” 51 percent of those polled agreed that, yes, shutting down such speech with the “heckler’s veto” is justified. Even more troubling was the response to a follow-up question which asked respondents if they believed in using violence to interfere with and shut down the controversial speaker’s appearance; astonishingly, 19 percent of students answered affirmatively that a violent response to the controversial speaker’s ideas and words is appropriate and justified.

A more recent 2020 study by The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership and the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, which surveyed 530 undergraduate students at UW-Madison about their views on free speech and religious liberties, found similar attitudes. “We next asked students how much they agreed with the statement that ‘a person should be able to prevent another person from speaking if they believe that person’s speech is hateful,’” the study reported. “45% of students agreed that a person should prevent another person from speaking under such conditions.”

The Hastings law student demonstrators revealed a breathtaking display of pretentiousness and audacity, woke race-obsessed students who have taken it upon themselves to decide which ideas can be heard and which can, and should, be suppressed—all in the name of protecting the sensibilities of victim groups on campus. That is a dangerous notion, and one that contradicts at least the purported goal of universities, which is the unfettered exchange of many views in the “marketplace of ideas.”

Unfortunately, many on the Left believe that their progressive views are virtuous and moral, and those of conservatives are regressive, cruel, and unjust. The moral rectitude of these students and faculty is not only ill-conceived but startling and offensive.

Their ideology assumes, falsely, that some ideas are intrinsically superior to others and that only those deserve to be expressed; that these few law students have the knowledge and insight—about all areas of inquiry—to be able to assess the value of a speaker’s intellectual contributions; and that students should be able to vet and even “cancel” speakers chosen to visit campus—especially speakers who may be controversial, unorthodox, incendiary, or representative of different political perspectives.

Where did the philosophical rationale come from which allows liberals and college administrators to make the leap from purporting to endorse freedom of expression for all on their campuses, to instead reserving that right, in actual practice, only to favored groups?

For many on the Left who were students and young faculty members during the 1960s, it was the influence of the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and his notion of “repressive tolerance” that changed the way intellectuals understood who should, and should not, have the right to free speech—in short, whose views should prevail in the marketplace of ideas.

Marcuse realized that liberal progressivism could not achieve radical social and cultural change if its views had to compete on an equal plane with the conservative ideology of the Right. Why? Because in his view, the repressive force of the existing establishment could not be weakened unless its ability to control speech—and ideas—was diluted. That would only be accomplished, according to Marcuse, by favoring “partisan” speech to promote “progressive” or revolutionary change, and that speech would, by necessity, be “intolerant towards the protagonists of the repressive status quo.” Someone like Shapiro, who articulates conservative views and questions the prevailing orthodoxy about race, equity, and inclusion, is thought to enjoy the privilege and power of whiteness, and therefore his speech should not only not be protected but should be subject to suppression—specifically because it is harmful and racist, even “violent” in its insensitivity.

Administrators have been slow to respond to these outrageous outbursts and out-of-control protests by leftist students who have unilaterally decided that their ideology is the only acceptable one and that they have the moral right to suppress the speech of others whose views they marginalize, condemn, and abhor. But the frequency and intensity of these disruptions, and the virulence of the left’s reaction to conservative speech, have finally pushed institutions to take a firm moral stand and address this serious problem head-on.

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, for example, drafted a policy, titled “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” which enacts penalties for any individual who exercises the “hecklers veto,” disrupts the speech of others, or otherwise prevents others from enjoying freedom of speech on campus.

Anticipating the mistaken belief that many students now have that certain speech—such as that speech referred to as “hate speech”—does not deserve protection, the policy asserts that “[I]t is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Maintaining civility on a campus is, of course, a worthy goal, but it is a secondary, not primary, consideration. “Although the university greatly values civility,” the policy states, “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community.” For a second infraction, a student will be subject to a formal investigation and a disciplinary hearing, and multiple infractions will result in suspension and eventually expulsion.

Shutting down speech is not only unconstitutional, but it also violates one of the university’s primary values. When members of the academic community ignore those values and violate regulations, there must be swift and significant consequences, and these sanctions must be publicized in advance of any event. Perhaps the Hastings protestors should have been immediately escorted out of the event and arrested, as the 11 unruly protestors were, for example, at UC-Irvine when they attempted to shut down a 2010 speech by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. Students should not and cannot be allowed to take over a campus and hijack the robust exchange of ideas—even if they think they have the best intentions and are, at least in their minds, promoting a virtuous, progressive agenda.

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education,” observed the champion of free speech, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel & Jews and Genocidal Liberalism: The University's Jihad Against Israel & Jews.
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