by Ron Trowbridge
Free speech on campus is less free today than it has ever been in academic history, and it’s getting worse. We now suffer on many colleges campuses from what has been called the “hecklers’ veto”—protesters, through yelling and screaming, and even violence, not permitting speakers to speak through the din. Readers of this piece need to know this: A new Brookings Institution survey reveals that American college students have no clue what the First Amendment means. Most Americans do not know that several Supreme Court decisions constitutionally protect even hate speech and racist speech. Half of the students believe that it is okay to shout down a speaker whose views they don’t agree with, and nearly one in five students believe it is acceptable for a student group opposed to a speaker to use violence to keep him or her from speaking.
Texas Southern University is a case in point. Last spring the university disinvited U. S. Senator John Cornyn from delivering the scheduled commencement address, out of fear of protests—some by students, some by outsiders. Recently, TSU shut down a talk by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, already in the lecture room, out of the storm of protest already in the lecture hall. Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Cain were victims of the hecklers’ veto, charged with hate speech and racism. Oliver Wendell Holmes wisely observed that “certitude leads to violence.” Protesters do not permit or listen to free speech and debate because they believe, with certitude, that they are right and infallible.
What are college administrators to do? If the controversial speech proceeds, it is drowned out in yells and screams. If the administration brings in the police to arrest the recalcitrant protesters, many will be happily obliged as “martyrs”—and they know their punishment will be little, if any.
The Houston Chronicle offered this solution: “The right way to respond to free speech is with more free speech that allows all sides a chance to express their opinions. Students who disagree with invited speakers can picket outside or carry protest signs into a lecture hall.” The Chronicle is right—except it often won’t work, not with students half of whom think it’s okay to shout down a speaker they don’t agree with, and 20 percent of whom believe that it is acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker they disagree with.
These constitutionally uninformed and belligerent, passionate students have backed university administrators into a corner. As a result, many administrators give in to the demands of the protesters in order to prevent violence, and because they know the speaker’s presentation won’t be heard anyway. Threats, like blackmail, have triumphed.
What, then, is the next step, to enable free speech and debate on campus? It virtually has to be suspension or expulsion. Nothing else has been working to ameliorate the problem. If a student is caught causing sustained, repeated disruption, suspend him or her for a given, meaningful period. If the student causes violence, expel that student permanently. These punishments should not happen on an administrator’s whim or for an occasional outburst, but on serious charges.
Here’s the big recent news, perhaps the beginning of a national movement on campuses where student protests are thoroughly disruptive or violent: The University of Wisconsin on October 6 codified a free-speech policy that would suspend students after their “second violent or otherwise disorderly misconduct that materially and substantively disrupted the free speech of others.” After a third time, the student would be expelled. The policy lays out in sensitive detail and concept precisely how matters are defined and punished. Legislatures and universities and colleges should examine this University of Wisconsin policy.
If anybody can come up with a better way to tackle this problem of sustained disruption and violence, please do let us hear it.
At the Lone Star College System where I’m a Trustee (speaking only for myself), we’ve been free of this disruption and violence—for I think two reasons: one, our college is 69 percent minorities, so we don’t get protests for more diversity. Two, with our focus on workforce programs and skills, we have few political speakers on campus. With 100,000 students on six campuses, the place is quiet and content.