Oliver Sacks, M.D. and author, said one of his patients suffered from a curious ailment: The patient, Dr. P., could not recognize familiar people or things. “When in the street, he might pat the heads of water hydrants and parking meters, taking these to be the heads of children,” Sacks writes.
If they suffered from this condition, we could forgive those who fail to recognize the recurring incidents of censorship and event disruptions on college campuses as symptomatic of a virus threatening free speech at schools around the country. Well then: The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) says that state legislative proposals to protect expression on campus that have passed in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and elsewhere are “solution[s] in search of a problem” and that “a political agenda is masquerading behind ‘free speech.’”
The steady stream of shout downs making headlines casts a pall over AAUP’s first contention—last week, shout downs and disruptions at SUNY Binghamton and Vassar, preceded by the same at Georgetown and UPenn in October. And that’s just over the last four weeks.
On the second point, that state proposals are merely an excuse to wedge conservative ideas into university halls, a notable list of progressive commentators and politicians are not afflicted with the condition Sacks described above of not seeing things for what they are. They understand John Stuart Mill’s point that we are no more justified in silencing one person with a contrary opinion than we “would be justified in silencing mankind.”
James Carville told a Virginia Rotary Club, “These people who shout down speakers are out of their minds,” and “I think this is a dangerous thing that you’re starting to see in the progressive movement.”
While speaking at the University of Chicago, Van Jones asked rhetorically, “You can’t live on a campus where people say stuff you don’t like?! And these people can’t fire you, they can’t arrest you, they can’t beat you up, they can just say stuff you don’t like—and you get to say stuff back—and this you cannot bear?!” and “This is ridiculous BS liberals!”
Harvard Professor Cornel West, whose friendship with Princeton’s Robert George launched them on a crusade for civil discourse, wrote in a joint statement with George, “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments.”
In 2017, Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “You have a right to protest. But I don’t quite understand why anybody thinks it is a good idea to deny somebody else the right to express his or her point of view.”
The notion that state proposals saying anyone “lawfully present on a university or community college campus may protest or demonstrate” on school grounds are merely partisan ploys willfully misreads the text. Progressives do not have to agree with the legislative solutions to recognize a problem exists.
AAUP’s denial of the epidemic of threats to speech on campus cannot explain why the Knight Foundation found that 68 percent of college students say “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.” This fear seems only natural when more than half of students say they are prepared to use the Heckler’s Veto “always” or “sometimes.” Students don’t want to speak up because they are afraid of what might happen next and do not seem to trust AAUP’s claim that “campus issues are best addressed by campus administration.”
Dismissing widespread challenges to the First Amendment is akin to one of Sacks’ appointments with Dr. P. At the end of the examination, Dr. P. “reached out his hand and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to life it off, to put it on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat! His wife looked as if she was used to such things.”
How sad for college students if an association representing their professors decides that shout downs only matter to the students involved and progressives and conservatives should just get used to such things.