Violence against peaceful right-wing protesters took place on Cal-Berkeley’s campus on Sunday.
Earlier this year, violent protesters at Middlebury College shut down a speech by controversial conservative Sociologist Charles Murray. Often accused as a white nationalist, Murray’s controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve linked lower socioeconomic status with race and intelligence and was very polarizing when it was released. Hundreds of Middlebury students disrupted the program, confronted and shouted down Murray, and pushed and shoved him in the hallway as he was leaving.
Even though I am a liberal and a university professor, I find this to be a continuation of a disturbing trend of silencing conservatives’ free speech rights on college campuses.
Earlier this year at NYU, 11 people were arrested while protesting conservative comedian, Vice media founder and guest speaker Gavin McInnes, cutting his speech short. The previous day, violent protesters shut down an appearance by conservative Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Months later. conservative pundit Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was canceled.
In past years, invitations to conservative speakers at graduation ceremonies have been revoked or declined, such as when former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice backed out of giving Rutgers University’s 2014 commencement speech due to protests.
As a liberal university professor, I am heartened and encouraged by an awakening of young people in speaking out about social issues and against many of the Trump administration’s agenda items. However, while I strongly disagree with the messages of controversial conservative pundits, I think they should be heard on college campuses. I am not encouraged by the violence of the Middlebury, NYU and Cal-Berkeley protesters and their actions of shutting down speakers that they disagree with.
I’m also encouraged that Berkeley’s chancellor sent a letter to students last week proclaiming the university’s commitment to free speech and that a student-led conservative magazine has invited Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Steve Bannon to speak on campus during “Free Speech Week” Sept. 24-27.
Universities shouldn’t shelter students and protect them in a liberal bubble. It’s good for them to be exposed to ideas that might differ from theirs. By all means, hold a peaceful protest before or after a controversial conservative comes to speak on campus, but let the speaker give their speech to those who want to hear it. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Universities should encourage political debate in classrooms and bring speakers of all ideologies to speak on campus.
Likewise, I don’t like it when conservative schools shy away from exposing students to liberal viewpoints.
I teach journalism courses as an adjunct professor at several universities. I’m a staunch liberal, and I make that transparent in my syllabus and during the first class. However, I also strongly encourage students in all of my classes to speak freely and openly when we discuss current events and controversial topics. Even though conservative students are generally a minority in most of my classes, I want them to be able to give their opinions even though I and the rest of the class might disagree with them. It makes class more interesting to have those differing opinions. I don’t punish conservative students for speaking their minds. I have given conservative students “A” grades and liberal students “F” grades.
I graduated from Temple University Law School in the 1980s. One of the most intellectually stimulating parts of class was when conservative students got in passionate arguments with liberal students about law, politics, government, judicial philosophy, and current events. Even though I disagreed with most of what the conservative students said, I found it valuable to learn how they felt and to get a sense of why they differed with me and the other liberals in the class.
Even though I have a policy of encouraging my conservative students to speak their minds freely, I’ve noticed that most are hesitant to do so, especially since most of the students in the class are very open in expressing their liberal points of view. This was especially the case right after the Trump election, when most of my students were shell-shocked and were trying to figure out how to deal with this setback. I tried to get some conservative students to give a pro-Trump point of view for some balance, but most were shy to do so, which resulted in me playing devil’s advocate to challenge how the rest of the class felt. Unfortunately, I’ve found over the years that even though I encourage, urge, or even beg conservative students to give their viewpoints during class discussions, most are reluctant to do so for fear of sticking out like a sore thumb.
This concept of free speech should work both ways and also apply to university professors and administrators.
Professors shouldn’t be forced to hide their political viewpoints in their classrooms, their scholarship, and their social media. The key is that they be transparent about it and that they not let their political perspectives affect how they treat students in their classes with differing viewpoints.
The concept of academic freedom for university professors needs to be enforced. In 2006, conservative writer David Horowitz wrote a book: The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Last year, a conservative organization, Turning Point USA, published a watch list of professors who allegedly advanced liberal propaganda in class, while Bob Thorpe, a Republican Arizona state representative, introduced a bill earlier this year that would ban college classes or activities that advocate social justice based on ethnicity, race, or gender. Professors have also been harassed and targeted through secret taping of classes and student meetings. Like students, professors should be allowed to express their beliefs without punishment.
Free speech is a two-way street. conservative students and speakers on university campuses should be free to express their viewpoints, while liberal students and professors should be free to exercise their free speech peacefully. Violent protests and intimidation shutting down speakers on either side of the political spectrum isn’t constructive and should stop.
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Larry Atkins teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He is the author of “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books). This is an updated and revised version of an op-ed that he wrote for The Hill. Twitter: @larryatkins4 Email: larryLTatkins@aol.com