The Corner

Full Circle With Jeane

The silencing of conservative speakers by shouting campus mobs is a sadly too common occurrence nowadays. (Has anyone seen Lee Bollinger?)  Yet the mother of all campus shout-downs was the drowning out of a talk by Jeane Kirkpatrick at the University of California at Berkeley in February of 1983.  At the time, the practice of shouting down speakers was uncommon.  So it shocked me when, as Berkeley grad student, I heard faculty members openly justifying that action with the claim that “oppressors have no free speech rights.”  The Kirkpatrick incident was a key moment in my long, slow transformation from McGovern liberal to conservative.

A few years ago, I was out at a college giving a talk on free speech when I raised the matter of the Kirkpatrick incident.  After the talk, I was approached by a faculty member who, like me, had been a grad student at U.C. Berkeley at the time of Kirkpatrick’s visit.  This professor denied that Kirkpatrick had been suppressed at all.  And how did she know this?  Well, this professor had actually been one of the protesters shouting at Kirkpatrick!  And now she steadfastly maintained that there had been no violation of Kirkpatrick’s freedom of speech.  After all, this professor said, Kirkpatrick duly finished reading her talk.

Shortly after I gave that lecture, I happened to run into Jeane Kirkpatrick.  I told her what this erstwhile protester, now professor, had said, and asked if it was true.  Kirkpatrick dismissed the professor’s remarks as an absurd excuse.  Yes, she had insisted on finishing her talk, Kirkpatrick said, but it was merely an act of defiance against the hecklers who were drowning her out.  A fighter, Kirkpatrick refused to give up, and so read her interrupted talk through to the end, despite the fact that the audience could barely hear her.  Kirkpatrick said she could see the faculty member who’d invited her to speak at Berkeley near tears, in the audience, by the end of the talk, deeply embarrassed by the fiasco.  And of course, the incident became a famous controversy precisely because Kirkpatrick had been interrupted and drowned out.

Here’s a San Francisco Chronicle article on a 2000 incident at Berkeley in which leftist protesters forced the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Note that one of the protesters said, “I don’t believe in free speech for war criminals,” the same sort of justification openly offered by Berkeley faculty members years before, during the Kirkpatrick incident.  At the bottom of the article, there is a long list of prominent figures whose speeches at Berkeley have been disrupted or canceled.  The list begins with the Kirkpatrick incident in 1983, in which, according to the Chronicle, Kirkpatrick “left the stage…shouted down by hecklers opposed to U.S. policy in El Salvador.  She resumed her talk, but canceled a lecture the next day.” 

For my take on the Kirkpatrick incident and the troubled Berkeley ethos see, “The Berkeley Censors.”) And here’s a 1983 Time Magazine Essay by Lance Morrow on the Kirkpatrick affair. Read Morrow and notice, as we endlessly await word from Lee Bollinger on the results of his (non)investigation into the Gilchrist affair, how little has changed in the past 23 years.  Why should it, when the very people who once shouted Jeane Kirkpatrick down are now professors?

Today I’m a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  Shortly after I arrived at EPPC, I noticed a plaque honoring Jeane Kirkpatrick hanging in the main conference room.  The honorary award dated from the early 1980′s, just around the time of the Berkeley incident.  When I saw that plaque, I realized that I’d come full circle.  Broadly speaking, I’d left the academy because of a series of incidents modeled on that first suppression of Jeane Kirkpatrick.  And now I’d come to a place that had given Jeane Kirkpatrick an award for her defense of the freedom the modern academy claims to support, but in fact suppresses.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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