Posted on May 11, 2018

What Is the Greatest Threat to Free Speech on Campus?

Megan McArdle, Washington Post, May 10, 2018

What is the greatest threat to free speech on campus today? If all you had to go by was the new report from the University of California at Berkeley’s Commission on Free Speech, you could be forgiven for thinking conservative provocateurs are single-handedly determined to destroy our First Amendment freedoms.

{snip} How to explain the violence that ripped apart the campus last year? “Ultra-conservative rhetoric, including white supremacist views and protest marches, legitimized by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath,” the commission concludes, “encouraged far-right and alt-right activists to ‘spike the football’ at Berkeley. This provoked an at-times violent (and condemnable) response from the extreme left, tearing at the campus’s social fabric.”

The Berkeley document does not condemn the violence, mind you; that is virtually the only direct mention of it. But apparently, antifa’s violence is now eligible for condemnation, if someone else had a mind to provide it.

They have plenty of harsh words, however, for the conservatives who were targeted. “Many Commission members are skeptical of these speakers’ commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency.” Their invitations to speak represented “the assertion of individual rights at the expense of social responsibility by a handful of students.” As a result, the commission finds speech of this kind “hard to defend, especially in light of the acute distress it caused (and was intended to cause) to staff and students.”

In the report, conservatives are active, provoking and triggering. The left-wing activists who set things on fire appear in passive voice, that great grammatical machine for sanitizing the indefensible. Left-wing groups have reasonable fears for their safety from conservative speakers, and the police needed to defend them (from what? Further deponent sayeth not.) {snip}

The commission’s members can’t quite bring themselves to say campus conservatives ought to be prevented from inviting speakers antifa doesn’t like. But they can’t quite keep themselves from implying it, either. Again and again, they impugn the motives of speakers and the students who invite them, complain that conservative groups are a tiny minority (isn’t this supposed to mean we try extra hard to make them feel welcome?), and otherwise suggest that the real culprits are conservatives, not the people committing the violence. The commission recommends thinly-veiled mechanisms to make it difficult for conservatives to stage these events — for example, by requiring student groups to provide one student volunteer for every 50 expected attendees, {snip}

And it seems they would like to go further, banning events that will require a lot of security, because “the campus should not have to expend scarce resources to protect celebrity provocateurs seeking to promote their brand . . . when so many essential needs go unfunded or underfunded.” {snip}

These are rather telling choices of words. Conservative free speech is, apparently, an inessential function on the campus that gave birth to the free-speech movement. {snip}


And I hardly believe that I have to say that — whatever their offenses against common manners and common sense — Coulter and Yiannopoulos are not smashing people in the head with bike locks.  They are not hurling Molotov cocktails. They are not attacking young women with flagpoles. The people doing those things are the ones the commission has tenderly swaddled in the protection of the passive voice. To focus on the motives of the speakers, rather than the violent actions of the protesters, suggests a commission that has allowed their tribal politics to blind them to basic human decency.