Slowly but surely, shout-downs are becoming the go-to form of protest for students who’ve learned they needn’t fear punishment for disruptions. The process is being normalized. Protests are publicly organized on Facebook and students post videos of their exploits knowing there will be no consequences. Most important, disruptors now target professors teaching classes, and administrators giving speeches, as well as visiting speakers.
Last year’s failure to punish shout-downs of visiting conservatives has given the all-clear signal for target escalation. I discussed all this in “The Campus Free-Speech Crisis Deepens.” In the 12 days since that post went up, the phenomenon has spread.
The shout-down of an ACLU speaker at William and Mary, where protesters chanted “liberalism is white supremacy” and “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution,” has been widely reported. Three lesser-known incidents last week, however, illustrate the trend toward disrupting the core functioning of the university.
Last Friday, University of Oregon President Michael Schill was prevented from delivering his State of the University speech when chanting students took over the stage (video here). If you want to understand why disruptions are spreading, this report on the Oregon shout-down explains a lot. President Schill knew the disruption was coming, but instead of taking steps to prevent it he pre-recorded his speech to distribute in the event that protesters drove him out. Of course, planned capitulation only invites further disruptions. After the shout-down, University of Oregon Faculty Senate Vice President Bill Harbaugh absurdly blamed the administration, rather than the protesters, for harming free speech. Meanwhile, the student leader of the demonstration, who clearly had no fear of discipline, let out the thuggish warning: “Expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” How’s that for encouraging open campus dialogue?
Weak administrators, faculty who no longer understand or believe in free speech, and thuggish students have brought us to this pass.
Protesters also interrupted Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands during his State of the University address last week. At least in that case security escorted the protesters out and allowed the president’s speech to continue. Even so, it’s clear that the target list for shout-downs has expanded.
Last Thursday at Columbia University, students broke into a class being taught by former LGBTQ rights lawyer and Title IX administrator Suzanne Goldberg, to protest the school’s alleged mishandling of sexual-assault cases. The protesters left after reading their statement, but classroom protests earlier this year at Reed College resulted in canceled lectures. We’ll see much worse if administrators allow classroom disruptions to be normalized. That is clearly where we’re headed.
So the four (known) shout-downs of the past two weeks have focused on liberal professors and administrators as well as visiting (liberal) speakers. As I show in “The Campus Free-Speech Crisis Deepens” this expanded targeting has been a trend for some time. Professor Goldberg rightly told the classroom invaders at Columbia they were infringing on the “core function” of the university. As students continue to see that there are no real consequences for shout-downs, we can expect the chaos to spread.
In opposition to all this, there is a trend toward countering shout-downs via legislation based on the model campus free speech bill I co-authored along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher of Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. The Goldwater proposal is the only model campus-free speech bill that addresses the problem of shout-downs. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, a Goldwater-based bill became law in North Carolina this summer. And a Goldwater-based bill that cleared the Wisconsin State Assembly last spring will be taken up by the Wisconsin State Senate shortly.
In anticipation of this, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents last Friday passed a policy designed to combat the heckler’s veto. That policy is drawn directly from the Goldwater-based bill that cleared the Wisconsin Assembly. Students who twice “materially and substantially” disrupt the free expression of others will be subject to mandatory suspension. Students who suppress the speech of others three times must be expelled.
So we are in a race of sorts. As shout-downs grow in frequency and expand their range of targets, legislatures and trustees are increasingly turning to the Goldwater proposal to restore order. Let’s hope more legislatures get the message, because faculty and administrators are clearly paralyzed.