Conservatives have come to expect that they might be protested, ridiculed and disinvited when they venture to speak on college campuses, but the penalty for telling students something they disagree with has taken a more violent turn.
Buttressed by an ideology that views “hate speech” as violence and its suppression as self-defense, students increasingly are resorting to the destruction of property and assault to keep conservative speakers quiet.
Students at Wellesley College made the intellectual case for using force to stifle free speech in an editorial last week, arguing that “hostility may be warranted” against people who are “given the resources to learn” yet “refuse to adapt their beliefs.”
“If people continue to support racist politicians or pay for speakers that prop up speech that will lead to the harm of others,” the students wrote in the April 12 editorial in The Wellesley News, “then it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions.”
The editorial was shared widely over social media — so much so that the student newspaper’s website crashed on April 14 because of the volume of traffic — and was condemned by conservatives and liberals alike.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said the ideas expressed in the editorial are not new. He traces their lineage to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci and German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose ideas greatly influenced the students of the New Left in the 1960s.
But Mr. Wood said the editorial “may be the first time in which the student newspaper at a highly respected liberal arts college has found its way toward endorsing what amounts to a Gramscian oppression of freedom.”
“It’s almost exactly the same as the Comintern in the Soviet Union: ‘We’re the freest country in the world. You can say whatever you want, as long as it agrees with the party.’ Now instead of the party, we have the consensus of Wellesley students,” he said.
The editorial did not elaborate on what “hostility” entails, but students at other schools clearly see nothing wrong with responding to unpopular speech with violence.
Officials at the University of California at Berkeley this week canceled an April 27 speech by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, citing safety concerns. The campus erupted into flames and rioting in February when students sought to prevent an appearance by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor for Breitbart News.
After Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger offered to moderate a talk last month with social scientist Charles Murray, she was assaulted by a mob of students protesting the event and had to wear a neck brace after sustaining whiplash and a concussion.
Midway through her talk at Claremont McKenna College this month, prominent Black Lives Matter critic Heather Mac Donald had to be escorted off campus when police determined that protesters had become too unruly.
While the ideas behind the Wellesley editorial drew from a rich tapestry of communist and existentialist theorists, the only authorities it invokes, to support a narrow reading of the First Amendment, are the Founding Fathers.
“The Founding Fathers put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised and to protect individual citizens from the power of the government,” the Wellesley students wrote. “The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.”
Mr. Wood said campus radicals are “dead ignorant” of the intellectual traditions into which they have been assimilated. He compared students today unfavorably with their 1960s counterparts, who at least “had the virtue of being educated in the things they rejected.”
But Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the similarities between the student radicals of the 1960s and today are more important than their differences. He said both schools of thought are ultimately predicated on the destruction of the family unit and the rejection of sexual morality.
“The ‘60s radicals mixed politics with drugs and worked to ‘smash monogamy,’” Mr. Kurtz said. “Today’s more sedate radicals want to deconstruct gender differences by battling for ‘transgender’ rights. Despite the differences, each generation in its way is striving to undercut traditional family structure and sexual morality.”
If the ideas of the campus radicals gain widespread acceptance, Mr. Wood said, it’s difficult to envision the long-term survival of a self-governing republic.
“It’s very hard to see if we have a self-governing republic if a substantial portion of the electorate were to become people who reject on principle the pursuit of truth, the intellectual openness that is a prerequisite of public debate on important issues,” he said. “Those are things that cut against the very foundations of the American republic.”
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