WASHINGTON, September 1, 2017 — With the beginning of a new academic year, increasingly dangerous assaults on free speech at the nation’s college and university campuses are likely to continue.
There were many successful attempts to silence speech in the last academic year. In April, for example, Heather MacDonald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and an expert on law enforcement, was invited to speak at Claremont McKenna College in California. A group of students from Pomona College, part of the consortium of Claremont schools, wrote a letter to Pomona president David Oxtoby, saying that MacDonald should not be permitted to speak because
“she is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobic, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed people are forced to live.”
According to the students, she challenged “the right of Black people to exist.” None of this was true. Still, she was physically blocked from entering the auditorium where she was scheduled to speak.
Leading the effort to stop free speech supporting views with which it disagrees is the group “Antifa” (anti-fascist). Those protesting under the Antifa banner seem very much like fascists themselves, wearing black masks to conceal their identity, carrying weapons, and engaging in violence.
Groups like this are nothing new. They were prominent during the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s. In early 20th century Europe, when genuine fascism was growing on the continent, militant groups emerged to challenge it. Now, the titular successors to those groups, like Antifa, have become a militant fringe of the #Resistance against Donald Trump, who they maintain is a fascist.
In Washington, on Inauguration Day 2017, Antifa spent the morning lighting trash cans on fire, throwing rocks and bottles at police officers, setting a limousine ablaze, and throwing chunks of pavement through the windows of businesses.
Antifa’s record of violence is growing, as are its efforts to limit free speech. In February, Antifa set fires and stormed buildings at the University of California, Berkeley to prevent an appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. They succeeded in preventing his appearance. In April, they threatened violence if columnist Ann Coulter spoke on campus.
The university and local law enforcement failed to find a secure location for Coulter to speak, and she withdrew. In August, two right-leaning rallies in the San Francisco Bay area were canceled by organizers for fear of violence. However, Antifa and its allies showed up at the rally site anyway to instigate chaos. Hundreds of violent, black-clad Antifa thugs jumped police barricades, beating up at least one man and hitting another with sticks. Police made 14 arrests.
After the recent violence in Berkeley, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi finally denounced Antifa:
“Our democracy has no room for inciting violence or endangering the public, no matter the ideology of those who commit such acts. The violent actions of people calling themselves Antifa in Berkeley … deserve unequivocal condemnation and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted. In California, as across all our great nation, we have deep reverence for the Constitutional right to peaceful dissent and free speech. Non-violence is fundamental to that right. Let us use this sad event to reaffirm that we must never fight hate with hate, and to remember the values of peace, openness and justice that represent the best in America.”
The September issue of The Atlantic features a cover story by Peter Beinart, entitled “The Rise of the Violent Left,” which chronicles the lawlessness and violence of Antifa. It was Antifa, notes Beinart, himself a liberal and sharp critic of President Trump, that was behind campus violence from Vermont to California to silence conservative speakers. Antifa also assaulted Trump supporters as they walked to their cars at the end of a rally in San Jose, California last summer.
In Beinart’s view, the purpose of Antifa violence is not merely to deny freedom of speech to those whose positions it opposes. It is also to prevent normal relations between Democrats and Republicans and between liberals and conservatives.
When Antifa says it is fighting “fascism,” it reserves the exclusive right to define the term. Writing in National Review, Ian Tuttle, notes
“Antifa’s reason for describing something or someone as ‘fascist’ is not that it is actually fascist (although perhaps on occasion they do stumble onto the genuine item) but that describing it that way is politically advantageous. Likewise with any number of other slurs. Antifa are in effect claiming to oppose everything that is bad—and, of course, it is Antifa who decide what is bad. Hence the organizers of the Inauguration Day protests could write as their mission statement, that ‘#DisruptJ20 rejects all forms of domination and oppression.’ That is a good monopoly if you can get it.”
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz warned liberals of the dangers inherent in turning violent leftists into heroes:
“Antifa is a radical, anti-American, anti-free market, communist, socialist, hard-hard left censorial organization that tries to stop speakers on campuses from speaking. They use violence. And just because they’re opposed to fascism … shouldn’t make them heroes of the liberals. I’m a liberal, and I think it’s the obligation of liberals to speak out against the hard-left radicals just like it’s the obligation of conservatives to speak out against the extremism of the hard right.”
Even Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says of Antifa,
“I think it’s a spectacularly bad idea to give one group of people the right to silence another group of people. It’s contrary to our values embodied in the First Amendment. It’s likely to drive the people they are trying to censor underground, where they may resort to illegal means to express themselves, like bombs.”
Violence on the left is nothing new. In his 2015 book “Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolution,” which chronicles the 15-year reign of terror of radical groups such as the Weather Underground and the self-declared Symbionese Liberation Army, Bryan Burrough observes:
“During an eighteen-month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil, nearly five a day. Radical violence was so deeply woven into the fabric of 1970s America that many citizens, especially in New York and other hard-hit cities, accepted it as part of daily life.”
Antifa has its defenders, such as Mark Bray, the author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” and a lecturer at Dartmouth College. He writes:
“Responding to small fascist groups may seem trivial to some, but the rise of Hitler and Mussolini shows that resistance is not like a light switch that can simply be flipped on in a crisis. Once the Nazis and Fascists gained control of government, it was too late to pull the emergency brake. Anti-fascists have concluded that it would have been much easier to stop Mussolini back in 1919, when his first fascist nucleus had 100 men. Or to stamp out the far right German Workers Party, which had only 54 members when Hitler attended its first meeting before he transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazi Party). Anti-fascists see small fascist and Nazi groups as if they could be the nucleus of the next murderous regime.”
A problem with Bray’s analysis is that Antifa is not using violence to fight dangerous fascists and Nazis, but instead to prevent people like Heather MacDonald, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter from speaking, while engaging in assaults upon the police, the destruction of property, and the rolling back of the very freedoms we cherish.
Sadly, our increasingly divisive political rhetoric – and the White House bears its share of responsibility – has led to the growth of extremist groups on both the left and the right. It cannot make any American comfortable to see David Duke and Richard Spencer marching through the streets of Charlottesville with Nazi banners.
But Antifa’s mindless violence serves as a recruiting tool for such extremists. They actually stand to gain most from Antifa’s assault on our political process and our academic institutions.
With the start of a new academic year, more of our universities fear becoming battlegrounds to political and ideological violent. Carol Christ, chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, declares
“What happened in Charlottesville, I’m very concerned that could happen again. The political situation has shifted in ways that some extremist groups of the right and the left feel authorized to kind of extraordinary violence.”
In recent years, universities have succumbed to the pressure—and potential violence—of those who would limit free speech. Now that we have an increased understanding of the goals and tactics of groups such as Antifa, it is not unreasonable to hope for a clear and effective response to their violence in the academic year ahead.
This does not mean that “hate speech”—think David Duke, Richard Spencer, etc.—must be welcomed to campus. While the First Amendment guarantees that government cannot limit free speech, it does not guarantee invitations from particular institutions to those who promote hate and division. They are free, of course, to hire their own halls.
Let us hope that in this academic year, genuine academic freedom will re-emerge from its long, self-imposed exile.