WSJ: How a Very Liberal University Successfully Protected Free Speech

Posted: Feb 15, 2018 4:15 PM

In our post yesterday about the latest campus 'triggering' flare-up at Princeton, I mentioned by experience at Brown University on Tuesday of this week -- which ended up generating a tremendous about of attention on social media.  On the afternoon of my planned speech, the president of the school's College Republicans chapter altered me to some online content that was raising new concerns about potential disruptions at the event.  Not only had promotional materials been defaced (a sign reading "racism exists at Brown" was slapped over my face on a poster advertising the talk), a group of students had signed a lengthy and ridiculous statement expressing the view that my invitation to address an audience at the notoriously liberal campus was "unacceptable," and vowing not to "stand idly by" as I did so.  Why?  My views on fiscal conservatism are "inextricably" linked to "real, tangible, state violence against marginalized communities," they asserted.  And my support for free speech "enable[s] white supremacist and fascist ideas to fester and flourish by defending the speech of already empowered people over and above any concern for justice or histories of violence."  

My presence, therefore, was deemed "explicitly dangerous to the well-being and continued thriving" of "marginalized" members of the university community.  By speaking out in favor of free speech, you see, I'd be promoting language that "actively make others less safe," which is tantamount to "silencing" people.  So I needed to be silenced in order to prevent silencing.  Or something.  This was all overwrought, self-indulgent, callow, authoritarian nonsense, of course, largely resting on the terrible and wrong conflation of speech with physical violence.  That's a perilous standard to apply even to extremely provocative and offensive speech; it's flat-out insane to apply to the talks I give on campuses.  Nevertheless, due to a string of harrowing situations at other schools in recent memory, including property destruction, rioting and assault, Brown officials decided to implement significant safety precautions.  Indeed, my words had become so very "dangerous" to students that the school determined that it needed to, from those students.  Got that?  

I was given a security briefing before the event began, at which I met the police officers who were on hand to keep the peace, and was instructed as to my designated 'escape route' from the venue, if things got ugly.  I'd be escorted out of a side door by armed security and ushered to a secure room in another building, from which I would complete my remarks via internet live stream.  As people arrived in the hall, their bags were searched for weapons.  It was surreal.  But after all of that dramatic build-up, guess what happened?  Basically nothing.  A handful of kids walked out at the beginning of my remarks (I didn't notice at the time), heroically live-streaming their courageous act of wokeness. I proceeded to give my 'End of Discussion' talk, during which the packed crowd was attentive and respectful -- dare I suggest that most people seemed to enjoy themselves? -- and then fielded a number of questions, all of which were strong, and most of which were challenges from left-leaning individuals.  Afterward, I thanked everyone for coming, milled around to meet attendees and take some photos, then called it a day.  Here is the student newspaper's account of the event, if you're interested.  Feel free to consider my quotes and juxtapose them with the fanatical screed I mentioned above.

In other words, the whole event went the way these things should go.  Perhaps some of that was due to the nature and tone of my remarks, but there were structural rules in place and actions taken that helped ensure a peaceful and successful event.  The Wall Street Journal has published a superb house editorial on the matter, entitled, "Brown Stares Down the Censors." It homes in on a crucial lesson:

Before conservative Guy Benson spoke at Brown University Tuesday night, there were the usual hallmarks of a free-speech fiasco...Yet the event was a success while others elsewhere have devolved into yelling matches or riots. What’s the difference?...Perhaps the most important [one] was the university’s clearly outlined and enforced free-speech policy, which says “the University must be a place where ideas are exchanged freely.” The guidelines say “individuals cannot decide for the entire community which ideas will or will not receive free expression,” so “halting a lecture, debate, or any public forum is an unacceptable form of protest.” Students who ignore this face a range of penalties, including expulsion. 

The university also acted to protect the rights of the student hosts and speaker. Police were on hand. The host College Republicans expected nonstudents in the audience, and the university checked bags for weapons. Mr. Benson said the university briefed him about risks, even mapping an escape route if the night turned violent. Such precautions can be costly but are often crucial in today’s campus climate. The student-run Undergraduate Finance Board paid for the security expenses.  Brown’s practices yielded impressive results. The audience was diverse—even ideologically. A handful of students staged a walkout, but their protest was peaceful and non-disruptive. Many students who disagreed with Mr. Benson stuck around to challenge his arguments during a Q&A. That group included some of the pro-censorship statement’s signatories, said College Republicans president Ethan Shire. Perhaps they even learned something. Administrators at other universities certainly could.

Well said. When rules of the road are clearly laid out, with a credible threat of enforcement, the specter of punishments for anti-speech outbursts and stunts can outweigh radical impulses. For this to work, robust pro-speech policies must be established, made unambiguous, and adhered to. And university officials must unapologetically assert themselves as adults. That model worked at a very liberal place like Brown, so the Journal's concluding point is an important one.  More of this, please.  I'll leave you with the following observations, which serve as obvious rejoinders to the scoffing dismissals from some leftists who argue that 'isolated' firestorms on college campuses more of a cherry-picked right-wing obsession than relevant news:

The toxic mentality of hypersensitive and self-righteous campus mini-tyrants graduates with them, and thus the contagion begins to seep into all corners of American life, including powerful institutions like Google and the Times.