There is certainly no shortage of examples of progressive attempts to silence “unacceptable” political speech. From Charles Murray to Ann Coulter to David Horowitz, the Left has upped its game when it comes to censoring, and in some cases even silencing, its political opponents. Some Yale students have even gone so far as to “petition” for a repeal of the First Amendment in its entirety.
Nobody, however, has done more to reveal the true nature of modern progressives’ illiberalism than Fresno State professor Gregory Thatcher. Thanks to cell-phone video and a timely complaint filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Thatcher’s utter contempt for contrary political thought was exposed after he directed students to scrub pro-life messages that had been scrawled on campus sidewalks by the Fresno State chapter of Students for Life. This sort of mentality is endemic in American academia — and increasingly in society at large.
A month prior to the incident, Students for Life e-mailed the appropriate authorities at the University, asking for permission to move forward with their “chalking” plans. Their request made clear that the plan would aim to convey “different facts about development in the womb” and “celebrat[e] pregnant and parenting students’ hard work as they pursued their education” with messages such as “Support Pregnant and Parenting Students,” “Pregnant on Campus Initiative,” and “Know Your Title IX Rights.” Ultimately, Fresno State’s Event Review Committee approved the request, just as it had approved many other similar requests in the past.
Pursuant to the approval, the students proceeded to chalk a sidewalk near Fresno State’s library on the morning of May 2. The messages included provocative statements such as “love them both,” “choose life,” “save the baby humans,” and “unborn lives matter.”
As seen in the video, after Students for Life chalked around three dozen of these hate-filled messages, students who admitted they had been deputized by Thatcher began scrubbing the sidewalk. Professor Thatcher then came rushing out to the pro-life students, demanding they put an end to the messages and directing them to an unidentified “free-speech area.” After the pro-life students informed him that they had received university approval for their activities, Thatcher himself began scrubbing, and told the students, “You had permission to put it down. . . . I have permission to get rid of it. . . . This is our part of free speech.” As if that weren’t enough, Thatcher concluded by emphasizing that “college campuses are not free-speech areas.”
Let that sink in for a moment: “College campuses are not free-speech areas.” If Thatcher’s right about that, it’s only because he and his progressive ilk have succeeded in perverting the sacred academic mission of free and open inquiry beyond recognition. Thankfully, they don’t seem to have thus succeeded at Fresno State, which in the wake of the incident reaffirmed its policy that “freedom of expression is allowed in all outdoor spaces on campus,” essentially throwing Thatcher under the bus.
On campuses across the country, the same illiberal attitude toward disagreeable speech is growing, and the broader public must take notice.
More important than the incident’s specifics are what it reveals about the mindset of progressives such as Thatcher. Not only did he think he had the duty to erase messages he deemed offensive, he deputized students as censors to more efficiently fulfill that duty. Instead of encouraging pro-choice students to write their own messages alongside the pro-lifers’, as would have been entirely appropriate, Thatcher exhorted his young charges to erase the pro-life messages and then chalk pro-choice ones in their place. Instead of engaging in a war of ideas, progressive such as Thatcher demand that contrary views must be silenced, lest innocent snowflake students be triggered by such provocative messages as, “A person is a person, no matter how small.” (Who knew Dr. Seuss could be so upsetting?)
Of equal importance is Thatcher’s distorted view of the powers that the First Amendment bestows on a political opponent. Though there is no more sacred a right then one’s ability to express a political message, that right does not empower one to silence political messages one does not agree with. The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the question of a “heckler’s veto” is mixed, but as the ADF’s complaint notes, Thatcher’s actions “censored the content and viewpoint of Plaintiffs’ expression.” (Fresno State appears to concur, noting that “those disagreeing with the students’ message have a right to their own speech, but they do not have the right to erase or stifle someone else’s speech under the guise of their own right to free speech.”)
Thatcher’s mindset is, unfortunately, far from unique. On campuses across the country, the same illiberal attitude toward disagreeable speech is growing, and the broader public must take notice. As Nebraska senator Ben Sasse put it at a recent Federalist Society event, “The idea that any American could think the First Amendment might go too far means that we as a people haven’t done the first things of teaching it.”
We as Americans can and must do better to protect the vibrant and free exchange of ideas.