By Peter Hasson
Over the past week, the nation has been captured by the shocking protests at the University of Missouri. Everyone from local newspapers to Megyn Kelly has covered the protests from every angle possible. At the heart of the matter, however, lies a truth that has been quietly ignored by far too many in the media: schools that crack down on free speech only encourage their students to do the same.
The most frequent targets of students’ assaults on free speech typically are visiting speakers, usually on campus to deliver a commencement address or take part in a panel. Commencement speaker protests happen so often the Washington Post referred to them as “a springtime ritual,” while protests of “triggering” lecturers have become a weekly ritual. Some speakers are able to deliver their lecture and escape with their dignity, others have their invitations rescinded by the university, and still others get to begin their lectures but not finish them.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) researched the “disinvitation” trend over fifteen years, publishing their results in 2014. Here’s what they found: schools with stricter policies experienced more student protests, more student-led calls for censorship. Harvard and Columbia led the nation in “disinvitation incidents,” despite the fact that FIRE gave both university administrations a “Red” rating for free speech policies–the worst rating a school can receive. University-sanctioned censorship wasn’t enough. It never is.
Schools that crack down on speech should fully expect their students to do the same. And why shouldn’t they? Law influences culture. Universities silence their students, tell them it’s for their own good, and then act surprised when the entire student body demands word-proof “safe spaces.”
The nation erupted when the University of Missouri Police Department told students to report “hurtful words” so the Office of Student Conduct could take “disciplinary action.” But how many news organizations felt like mentioning that this actually wasn’t a new development? The university already encouraged students to turn in their peers for alleged “bias incidents” such as “verbal assaults” or “unequal treatment.” Why, then, was anybody surprised when Mizzou students demanded “safe spaces” to shelter them from words? Like Harvard and Columbia, Missouri already had a “Red” speech code rating from FIRE. Missouri officials told their students that words are harmful, Missouri students believed them, and the results have been disastrous.
If universities are serious about minimizing protest they’ll scrap the speech codes. But if universities continue to tighten their stranglehold on free speech then don’t expect Missouri to be an anomaly. It’s only the beginning.