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The indignation of campus activists and the strangulation of free speech

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Have you ever noticed that campus activists are perpetually “outraged” at whatever is the perceived “offensive” issue du jour? As George Will notes, “There is nothing more tiresome in modern American life than the indignation sweepstakes we get in all the time to see who can be most angry about this and that.” I can attest to Will’s weariness after enduring countless Facebook posts about “standing in solidarity” with Missouri, Yale or whatever other college that’s no longer a “safe space” for the easily offended. I’m sure President Brodhead also shares my frustrations after having been harangued not one but two Fridays in a row by hysterical students. But more dangerous than the grievances of these activists is their authoritarian tactic of attempting to silence any opposition. Not only do I find their complaints unfounded, I refuse to be cowered and intimidated into accepting their attempt at monopolizing campus dialogue.

Before proceeding, I want to emphasize the importance of the First Amendment and the principles it expounds. It’s true, as activists have argued, that the First Amendment protects individuals from government “abridging the freedom of speech” but does not protect against private action. Duke, as a private institution, and students, as private citizens, are incapable of transgressing the First Amendment. But, as Charles Krauthammer notes, “The Constitution is not just a legal document. It is a didactic one.” The First Amendment doesn’t just state what the government is not permitted to do; it also normatively expresses what we the people should not want to do, which is to impinge upon the speech of others. When we encounter speech we disagree with, the correct response is to articulate our own speech in contestation, not to silence the opposition. Free speech protects unpopular speech, even “hate speech.” Campus activists who glibly cite the First Amendment as a get out of jail free card for their impudent actions are instead stomping upon the very principles embodied in the First Amendment.

The recent events at the University of Missouri are a prime example of those with misplaced consternation attempting to silence speech. The president, Tim Wolfe, and the chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, were forced to resign after the actions of Jonathan Butler, who undertook a hunger strike. What was he protesting? For one, he was upset with losing health insurance, which, ironically enough, is a direct result of the Affordable Care Act. Butler was also upset that Wolfe declined to speak with protestors when they disrupted the homecoming parade, surrounded his car and accosted him for his supposed intransigence. Butler’s co-conspirators demand “mandatory racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all faculty, staff and students, controlled by a board of color.” Is this demand any different than the forced re-education perpetrated by students of the Red Guard? The protestors also demand “an increase in the percentage of black faculty and staff to 10 percent,” which would be an unconstitutional race quota.

Never mind the infantile tantrum of the protestors; the actions of university faculty, who are government actors, in suppressing journalists and the free press is downright despicable and illegal. As seen in a widely circulated video, Tim Tai, a student photojournalist, is physically assaulted by students and multiple faculty members when he attempts to document the protest taking place on a public quad, as is his constitutional right. The protestors claim that journalists intrude upon their “safe space” as if that were some kind of trump card over the free press. Of course, the media isn’t supposed to make you feel safe; it’s there to report the news unvarnished, not coddle the fragile psyche of protestors.

Over at Yale, there’s an even clearer example of free speech suppression emanating from “insensitivity” and “micro-aggressions,” so miniscule as to be vanishingly small. Professor Erika Christakis had the audacity to send out a thoughtful email questioning the propriety of Yale paternalistically regulating Halloween costumes as if students were children. In response, the little Robespierres of Yale decided to curse and scream at her husband, Nicholas Christakis, while he admirably defended free speech. Students have also called for the firing of the Christakises, which Yale has thankfully refused to do.

Missouri and Yale are just the two most recent and visible reminders of the inexorable assault on free speech at colleges. Both Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde were forced to back out of commencement speeches due to student protestors. Wesleyan cut their student newspaper’s budget in half after a columnist dared to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement. At Smith College, journalists must swear to “explicitly state they support the movement in their articles.” Activists at Amherst want to discipline students who refuse to support protestors. Black Lives Matter instigators at Dartmouth screamed and cursed at students studying in the library for not supporting the movement. The editors of Brown’s student newspaper censored the writings of a columnist after students complained. This list is endless.

But, thankfully, the tide might finally be turning against the aggrieved bullies of college campuses. Alan Dershowitz, a liberal Harvard professor, gives this insight into the Mizzou protests: “They may want superficial diversity, because for them diversity is a code word for ‘more of us.’ They don't want more conservatives, they don't want more white students, they don't want more heterosexuals.” The Washington Post Editorial Board writes in support of free speech. Columnists in the New York Times, L.A. Times, Vox, the Huffington Post and elsewhere also support free speech. Perhaps most courageously, the Editors of Claremont McKenna’s newspaper delivered a stirring dissent to campus activists for their appalling behavior. Even President Obama has supported free speech and reprimanded militant activists, not once but twice.

Here at Duke, I urge the University to immediately cease making proclamations in support of Black Lives Matter as if all students support the movement. The “Duke Students” Instagram account states: “We, students at Duke University, stand with [Mizzou] in solidarity… #ConcernedStudent1950.” Larry Moneta also stated in an email to students that “Black Lives Matter… has great meaning to me, to our Black community and to every member of the Duke community.” Instead, I encourage the University to adopt a robust protection of free speech, like our peers at the University of Chicago and Princeton. Lastly, I ask that my classmates reject the protestors’ demands, which are laughable if not for the fact that they’re actually serious. President Brodhead must not kowtow to these activists. He should simply issue a one-word response: No.

Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity senior and the Editorial Page Editor. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

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