The Corner


Ending Campus Violence

NR readers will be familiar with the despicable treatment at Middlebury College in Vermont of Charles Murray and the professor who was supposed to moderate his lecture. It follows on the heels of the violence at Berkeley and is part of a nascent but growing trend of mob threats and intimidation at our nation’s universities.

What amazes me about these riots and near riots on college campuses is that no one seems to be doing anything about it. Meetings have been disrupted, people have been assaulted, fires have been set, and property has been destroyed — and unless action is taken, worse is likely to come.

If there is a process norm to which I thought everyone in this country subscribed, it is this: There is no appeal to violence in political disputes. None. No cause justifies it; no rationale excuses it; no tolerance should be shown in the face of it.

No one’s ideas should be shut out or shut down because of mob violence. Our people should not have to risk life and limb, or the destruction of property or property rights, because they want to speak or hear others speak.

It’s as simple as that, and it goes for people on college campuses just like everybody else.

The government is not helpless to protect this right. Controlling the mob is something that governments have known how to do for millennia. In fact, if “controlling the mob” were a class in political science, it would be a survey course, part of “Government 101.”

And if local governments are unable or unwilling to protect the right to free speech on campus from the mob, state authorities should intervene and bring the full force of state law, and state resources, to bear.

In short, what is needed here is a classic exercise of the government’s police power, which belongs in the first instance to state government. So let’s not talk about the Justice Department intervening in this area. This is a job for the governments of the several states; in fact, it is an opportunity for the states to show that freedoms still matter, and that the law is still capable of defending them.

Here is what state legislatures should do.

Their Judiciary committees should conduct hearings that a) review the existing statutes against violent or disorderly conduct that disrupts free speech, b) gather information about the extent to which the right to free speech is being threatened or circumscribed by mob violence, particularly on college campuses, and c) consider legislation stiffening the statutory penalties for such violence, authorizing the state authorities to intervene, and prescribing a process for such intervention.

The hearings should be thorough, dispassionate, and bipartisan. Nothing should be done out of panic, or in response to rumor or fake news. Careful distinctions should be drawn between peaceful protest, which is itself speech, and violence or unlawful disorder aimed at suppressing speech. But if the facts warrant the conclusion that college campuses are at growing risk of violence to intimidate free speech, and that the existing statutory protections are insufficient, the committees should report out measures like the following:

‐ New statutes specifically prohibiting the violent or disorderly disruption of speech on college campuses. Conviction of such an offense, even if it is designated as a misdemeanor, should result in mandatory jail time. A second conviction should be a felony.

‐ Provision for the automatic termination of any state employee, or expulsion of any student at a state university, convicted of violating the new statute, even if the conviction is a misdemeanor and regardless of whether the state employee has tenure or other civil-service protections.

‐ Authorization for the governor to intervene with state law-enforcement personnel, or where necessary the National Guard, to protect free speech on college campuses, upon application by local authorities, or when he decides that local authorities are unable or unwilling to provide sufficient protection.

‐ Authorization for the governor to appoint special prosecutors where he decides that local prosecutors are unwilling or unable to charge and try offenders.

‐ Funding to train special units of state police and the National Guard in the methods of protecting peaceful speech and controlling or investigating mob violence or disorderly conduct on college campuses.

There is no reason not to include defense of freedom of the press in such measures, and no reason not to apply the measures to private as well as public colleges. Students and reporters at private universities have as much right to speak or report on speech, without “muscle” being called in against them, as do the students and reporters at public colleges.

Once these laws have been passed, it is up to the state’s executive authority to see that are enforced. That means the nation’s governors. They should make it a personal priority to: ensure that state law enforcement personnel are properly trained and equipped; prepare a bipartisan list of competent and fair special prosecutors who can be swiftly appointed should the need arise; establish close connections with their college administrators and local authorities; and — when they see trouble brewing at one of their universities — publicly warn that speech will be protected and violence will be punished.

These steps by themselves would probably be enough to preserve order in any state that takes them. The cowards who have been intimidating scholars, speakers, and students will go quickly to ground when faced with the prospect of state police or the National Guard enforcing strong laws — and therefore the certainty that violence or unlawful disruption will result in real time behind bars.

But if the mob decides to challenge the law, and mass arrests are necessary to restore order and deter future violence, then so be it. One round of swift and sure enforcement — one wave of arrests followed by swift prosecution and punishment of those responsible — will show that the state means business. And if this campus violence is being generated by roving groups of anarchists, it’s time to put a crimp in their travel plans and get them into jail where they belong.

Every time one of these episodes occurs, dozens of columns are written decrying them. That is good as far as it goes, but at a certain point it looks like hand wringing. The right response to speech is more speech, but the right response to violence against speech is not just verbal condemnation but strong laws, carefully written and stringently enforced.

We are not defenseless in the face of violence. This isn’t 1929, and America isn’t the Weimar Republic. Nor should our people have to rely on organizing their own self-defense. We don’t need anarchists and vigilantes fighting it out on the grounds of our universities. But that’s what we’re going to get, unless those who have the authority, and therefore the responsibility, take firm action to protect their people in the exercise of their rights.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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