Beware the Next Generation of Speech Police

Laura Hollis
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Posted: Oct 01, 2015 12:01 AM
Beware the Next Generation of Speech Police

Each week brings new proof of how little understanding the current generation of college students has of our system of government or the liberties it was created to protect -- and what is at risk as a result. The latest such example is the conflict at Wesleyan University in Connecticut over an editorial in the student newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus.

Two weeks ago, Bryan Stascavage, a writer for the Argus, wrote an editorial in which he expressed support for the objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement generally, but called upon them to distance themselves from some who sound like they are agitating for killing police officers. ("Pigs in a blanket; fry 'em like bacon!")

Stascavage, at 30, is significantly older than the average college student. He is an Iraq War veteran, and a self-described "moderate" who supports gay marriage. But the reaction to his editorial made him sound like a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Outraged student groups stole and destroyed thousands of copies of The Argus with Stascavage's editorial. They called for a campus-wide boycott of the paper, and demanded that the administration defund it. Other demands included a mandatory front-page column from students of color, as well as sensitivity and diversity training for the entire Argus staff on an ongoing basis.

Unsurprisingly, the editorial staff agreed to many of the demands, including publishing an apology and an issue with no white writers. (Imagine the outrage if white students demanded that a campus paper publish an issue with no black writers.) To their credit, Wesleyan's president, Michael Roth, and other senior administrators published an online statement titled, "Black lives matter and so does free speech," in which they defended the right of the student paper on principle to publish unpopular viewpoints, saying, "(T)here is no right not to be offended."

This seemingly uncontroversial statement, coming as it does at a progressive-leaning liberal arts university, nevertheless drew harsh criticism. Wesleyan student Chris Caines responded on the blog without a trace of irony, saying, "The biggest problem with treating this as a freedom of speech issue is that this speech actively silences other speech." No, it doesn't -- but those who don't like Stascavage's opinion won't stop until they silence his speech.

It would perhaps be of little concern if this were the only instance of self-imposed censorship on college campuses. But it isn't. Censorship of speech in the name of "diversity," "safety" or "sensitivity" has become de rigueur.

Washington State University drew attention when one of its professors sought to ban the use of the terms "male," "female" and "illegal alien." A professor at University of California Santa Barbara attacked pro-life protesters and stole their materials, screaming that they had no right to express their views. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps a running tally of the many cases on college campuses in which freedom of speech is compromised or threatened by speech codes or other campus policies. It is a long list.

And then there are "trigger warnings" -- the increasingly popular calls for warning labels on any materials or references to events, ideas, or concepts that students or faculty consider offensive or frightening.

In a similar vein, the Wesleyan students protesting the Argus maintain that the paper should be censored because it is not a "safe space." This is a complete distortion of the concept of "safety." It is also a fundamental misunderstanding of legal protections against discrimination, which were never intended to mean that no one can ever disagree with you.

Here's a quick history lesson: free speech isn't "safe." And a society that permits only "safe" speech isn't free.

It's worth asking where these young adults have gotten their notions of freedom. It often sounds like they have created some warped application of the theory of evolution and applied it to the universe of thought: Their ideas, beliefs, opinions and worldviews are more evolved, better, superior. Thus, those views are entitled to legal protection. Other views -- which is to say, any with which they disagree -- are evidently inferior, and thus no important rights are infringed if those views are not permitted to be uttered aloud.

It is consummately ironic that the biggest threats to free speech are now taking place on college campuses -- those bastions of liberal thought that in the 1960s birthed such groups as Students for a Democratic Society, and countless student protests. That generation is now running the universities -- what happened?

"Progressivism" happened. It has replaced liberalism, and is anything but. (In a recent interview, Bill Ayers, a founding member of the radical 1960s group the Weathermen, described himself as a "First Amendment fundamentalist." He seems to be something of an anachronism.)

Thankfully, there have been plenty of left-leaning critics of the Wesleyan student protesters and their incensed demands (Fredrik deBoer in The New Republic and Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, among others). Even so, it is frankly frightening to see Americans willing to compromise their freedoms in a futile attempt to shield themselves from anything they don't like.

Freedom of speech should be darn near sacrosanct. But it is very much at risk in a population that tolerates -- no, demands -- restrictions on any viewpoint with which they disagree. What college students demand from institutions of higher education today, they will demand of government tomorrow.

And that is truly a prospect to be feared.