WASHINGTON, April 21, 2017 — Free speech is not faring well on the nation’s university campuses. This week, the University of California at Berkeley canceled a scheduled talk by conservative author Ann Coulter in what The New York Times called “the latest blow to the institution’s legacy and reputation as a promoter and bastion of free speech.”
In a letter to the Berkeley College Republicans, which sponsored the talk, two vice chancellors said the university had been “unable to find a safe and suitable venue for your April 27 event”.
In February, a speech by controversial writer Milo Yiannopoulos, also sponsored by the College Republicans, was canceled after masked protesters smashed windows, set fires and pelted the police with rocks. The Washington Post notes that,
“The decision by UC-Berkeley to cancel both events are especially notable given the campus’s role during the 1960s and 1970s as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and its long tradition of social protest.”
Campus assaults on free speech are widespread. In March, author Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute was forced to abandon a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont. The professor who hosted him, a liberal Democrat, was assaulted.
Notre Dame students have announced that they feel “unsafe” at the prospect of Vice President Mike Pence speaking at their commencement. In April, the University of California at Davis Student Senate voted to make display of the American flag optional at their meetings. One student declared that the flag “represents a history of genocide, slavery and imperialism.”
A Wall Street Journal op-ed writer observes, “Every year, Stanford asks its applicants an excellent question: ‘What matters to you, and why?’ Ziad Ahmed of Princeton, N.J. summed up his answer in three words. His essay consisted of the hashtag ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ repeated 100 times. He got in.”
Going to an extreme unusual even for advocates of political correctness, a group of students at California’s five college Claremont Consortium said this week that objective truth is itself a “myth” espoused by “white supremacists.” This came after Pomona College President David Oxtoby released a statement in defense of free speech after an event for conservative author Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute was disrupted at nearby Claremont McKenna College.
President Oxtoby’s letter was met with a list of demands by black activist students who called MacDonald “a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state,” and truths like those cited in the Declaration of Independence “a means of silencing oppressed peoples.” The authors, Dray Denson, Avery Jonas and Shanaya Stephenson, received 22 co-signers.
They said that silencing conservative speakers like MacDonald, whose work has been published widely in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and other newspapers and journals, is a valid option for activists since such speaking engagements constitute “a form of violence.”
During her lecture, MacDonald attempte to discuss the rise of anti-police attitudes when she was derailed by protestors banging on windows and shouting “F*** the police” and “Black lives matter.” Campus security ultimately forced MacDonald to live stream her lecture from a near-empty room across campus.
In his letter, Oxtoby wrote that, “Protest has a legitimate and celebrated place on college campuses. What we cannot support is the act of preventing others from engaging with an invited speaker. Our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth, the collaborative development of knowledge and the betterment of society.”
This defense of free speech was rejected by the student protestors:
“Free speech, a right that many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth, how does free speech uphold that value?”
The students said that the very idea of objective truth is a concept devised by “white supremacists” in an “attempt to silence oppressed peoples.”
“Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth, ‘the Truth’, is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.”
The assault on MacDonald was particularly harsh.
“If engaged, Heather MacDonald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black People to exist. Heather MacDonald 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 peoples are forced to live … Engaging with her, a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state, is a form of violence.”
The campus assault on Western Civilization is nothing new. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson led a group of militant students through the campus chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.”
Minority opposition to transmitting western culture and civilization is based on the unusual idea that only books, music and art created by men and women who share their own racial or ethnic background can be meaningful to minorities and should be required of them: Only Jews should read the Bible; only Greeks should be obliged to contemplate Plato and Aristotle; only those of English descent should read Shakespeare; and only Italians will appreciate Dante or Leonardo da Vinci.
In fact, Western culture is relevant to people of all races and backgrounds, not just those enjoying the opportunities provided by our Western society, like the students at Pomona College. Distinguished scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, a black man, recognized this reality when he wrote more than a hundred years ago:
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil.”
In his address to the freshman class at Yale College in September, 1990, Donald Kagan, Professor of History and Classics and Desn of the College, declared:
“The assault on the character of Western civilization badly distorts history. The West’s flaws are real enough, but they are common to almost all the civilizations known in any continent at any time in human history.
“What is remarkable about the Western heritage, and what makes it essential, are the important ways in which it has departed from the common experience. More than any other it has asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting the state’s power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate … Western Civilization is the champion of representative democracy as the normal way for human beings to govern themselves, in place of the different varieties of monarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny that have ruled most of the human race throughout history and rule most of the world today. It has produced the theory and practice of separation of church and state, thereby creating a safe place for individual conscience.
“At its core is a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures. One of its most telling characteristics is its encouragement of itself and its ways. Only in the West can one imagine a movement to neglect the culture’s own heritage in favor of some other.”
Western civilization is under attack on university campuses across America, as is the idea of objective truth itself, as the students at Pomona College have shown us. When will universities finally sanction students who silence the speech of those with whom they disagree? When will alumni cut back their contributions to institutions which embrace identity politics and limit the speech of those who dare to differ?
This is a serious challenge to our institutions of higher learning. Some are resisting the barbarians in their midst. Others, like Berkeley, are acquiescing.
It is hard see how those who deny the existence of truth are taken seriously. That many take such irrationality as legitimate discourse tells us as much about today’s universities as it does about those who would destroy them and the free speech and open inquiry necessary for them to thrive.