I’m supposed to be encouraged, but I’m not.
In the aftermath of this month’s violent attack on Charles Murray and a Middlebury professor, I’m supposed to be encouraged, as a supporter of free speech and academic freedom in higher education, that pundits, professors, and writers from across the political spectrum have united to condemn mob censorship. I’m supposed to be encouraged that even stalwart men of the left such as New York Times columnists Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof are waking up to the modern American academy’s serious intellectual-diversity problem. And I’m supposed to be encouraged that Middlebury’s president and dozens of Middlebury professors have united to express their support for free speech.
I’m certainly grateful for the near-unanimous condemnation of the protesters and rioters at Middlebury (and also at Berkeley, where the so-called “black bloc” shut down Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned speech, started fires, vandalized shops, and beat Trump supporters in the streets), but I’m not encouraged, and I don’t think other free-speech advocates should be either.
Why? Because the rioters won. In two key incidents at two important colleges, violent and disruptive protesters succeeded in shutting down free speech.
The Middlebury incident is more recent, and investigations are still ongoing, but protesters sent a liberal professor to the hospital after they “rocked, pounded, and jumped on” her vehicle, and dozens of students succeeded in drowning out Murray’s speech with their boos. So far, they have faced no consequences for their actions.
Let’s be clear. Unless the law is used to protect liberty, all the tut-tutting in the world won’t protect free speech. Pundits and professors don’t control the streets. If the mob is able to dictate the facts on the ground, op-eds and professor letters will be meaningless.
In the longer term, odes to intellectual diversity are also meaningless unless they’re accompanied by concrete actions. Rigid, ideologically homogeneous cultures — often existing in open defiance of the constitutional protections of free speech and religious liberty — are manufacturing and empowering student radicals on a grand scale. It’s time to end discrimination against conservative viewpoints on campus and declare unequivocally that the Constitution applies everywhere the government reaches, not just to the land outside the ivy-covered walls.
In the longer term, odes to intellectual diversity are also meaningless unless they’re accompanied by concrete actions.
Liberalism cannot exist without the rule of law, and law enforcement doesn’t just exist to protect public safety but also to guarantee American liberty. If the mob can suppress liberty simply by threatening any law-enforcement officers who stand in its way, then law enforcement has failed. If the mob can destroy academic freedom by threatening any college administrator who attempts to enforce free-speech and academic-freedom policies, then the academy has failed.
Liberty requires constant, courageous defense. While the United States thankfully hasn’t seen violence comparable to that experienced overseas, if these early riots and disturbances represent a test of will, then the defenders of liberty have failed. As it now stands, professors and students will think twice before inviting dissenting voices to campus — taking care that they’re only “appropriately” conservative — and the mob knows that when push comes to shove, it owns the streets.
At Berkeley, rioters and their friends claimed that Milo was a unique threat. Middlebury students proved that was a lie. If Charles Murray isn’t within the bounds of acceptable discourse, who is? If one of Milo’s chief public opponents, Ben Shapiro, can’t speak on some campuses without violent incidents, which conservative speakers are truly “safe” enough for the modern campus? Thankfully, it’s still true that most conservative speakers appear without incident, but as Berkeley and Middlebury teach us, that’s because of the permission or indifference of the radicals, not the resolve of our leaders. On campus, the mob is winning.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.