During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said that it was okay for universities to cancel controversial speakers over threats of violence — and people got mad at her for trying to silence “conservative” voices.
But all of those people were missing the point.
Yes, Feinstein’s comments do come at a time when speakers invited by conservative student groups have routinely been met with debilitating protests. And yes, a Democratic senator’s suggesting that colleges have every right to cancel Republican-invited speakers is certainly going to sound the partisan-outrage alarm bell — and I can’t say I’m surprised to have seen so many headlines like “Dianne Feinstein Defends Canceling Conservative Speakers on Campus” (The Daily Caller) and “Senator Feinstein Defends Suppression of Conservative Speakers On College Campuses” (Mediaite), and countless similarly scripted tweets.
But the truth is, what Feinstein said shouldn’t be upsetting for partisan reasons — it’s much, much bigger than that. The issue here is not that colleges are denying their students the “right” to hear conservative speakers, because, of course, no such right exists.
The issue is this: Feinsten is saying that students are not free to bring any speaker that they choose to their campuses, because campuses are not safe places for free speech, and that that is totally acceptable and fine. Remove the ideology of the “controversial” speakers in question, and it becomes clear just how absurdly out of line Feinstein really is.
Student groups choosing and inviting speakers is a normal, acceptable campus protocol, and even “offensive” speech is protected under the First Amendment. So, basically, what Feinstein is saying is that colleges do not have a duty to make sure that the First Amendment is protected on campus — that it is not important for campuses to make sure that the First Amendment is not able to be overridden by threats from violent mobs.
Now, Feinstein tried to argue that colleges simply don’t have the “resources” to deal with this problem, but that’s pretty obviously a garbage excuse. Colleges are bloated with wasteful spending, and I’m pretty sure that protecting students’ civil liberties — and making sure that a campus doesn’t turn into a microcosm of fascism, where violence is used to silence people — is a little more important than the annual Microaggressions Awareness Festival Featuring Puppies and Finger-Paint Time, or whatever other trash these schools might spend it on. And, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh pointed out during the hearing, the police can help too — after all, protecting our rights is literally the police force’s job.
So, yes, get mad at Senator Feinstein. Get very, very mad — but not because you’re a conservative. Often, partisan loyalty is the reason people become outraged, but this time, it seems to be the reason that people don’t realize just how outraged they should really be.
– Katherine Timpf is a National Review Online reporter.