NY Times supports free speech but blames right for ‘narrative’ about progressive campus culture

posted at 5:01 pm on March 7, 2017 by John Sexton

There is a lot to like about the New York Times editorial on the silencing of free speech that took place recently at Middlebury college, but there is also a problem. Midway through, the Times inserts a paragraph suggesting the incident is part of a right-wing narrative aimed at unfairly blaming progressives, rather than an example of a genuine problem with progressive culture on and off campus. The editorial starts well enough with this accurate, if somewhat bloodless, account of the incident at Middlebury:

“Truth would lose something by their silence,” Mill wrote, even if their views go against the entire world, and the entire world is right.

Persuasive words. But not last Thursday in an auditorium at Middlebury, where a student recited that very quotation in introducing the notorious social scientist Charles Murray. Moments later caterwauling erupted, and the event collapsed into a night of turned backs, shouted chants, pounding fists and one wrenched neck — belonging to a professor who was supposed to have provided a counterpoint to Mr. Murray’s remarks, and to lead the Q. and A., but instead was attacked while leaving with him.

As I noted yesterday, political science professor Allison Stanger, who is a Democrat, wrote of the moment students began shouting her and Murray down, “I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture.” Speaking of her effort to exit the building later she wrote, “we confronted an angry mob” and added, “I noticed signs with expletives and my name on them.” On the moment when she was grabbed by the hair and shoved violently, Stanger writes, “I feared for my life.” She later went to the ER and was given a neck brace.

Eventually, the NY Times does condemn all of this in no uncertain terms. “Free speech is a sacred right, and it needs protecting, now more than ever. Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, did this admirably, in defending Mr. Murray’s invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury’s thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves,” the editorial states. Unfortunately, before it reaches that conclusion, the Times felt it was necessary to insert a paragraph suggesting the whole story is part of a bogus right-wing narrative:

Though speakers of all ideologies regularly appear at colleges without incident, a few widely publicized disruptions feed a narrative of leftist enclaves of millennial snowflakes refusing to abide ideas they disagree with. From the president to Fox News, right-wing voices wail, through their megaphones, about how put upon they are, like soccer players collapsing to the turf and writhing in pretend agony.

What the Times is describing with this sports analogy is what’s usually called ‘a flop,’ i.e. a player faking an injury in order to draw a foul on the other team. Clearly, that doesn’t apply to the incident at Middlebury College. So where does it apply? Is the Times referring to a similar mob that shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulis at Berkeley? If so, the editorial writers should take a look at a first-hand account by a student reporter who was at Berkeley that night. Here’s a bit of what he wrote in the NY Times last month:

Until Wednesday, I never felt in danger during a protest. Around 7 p.m. I saw a huddle of people yelling at one another. As more people surrounded them, a burning red trucker’s hat was held up on a stick. There were reports that another student wearing what appeared to be a “Make America Great Again” hat was severely injured.

Then I saw someone wearing all black walk up to a student wearing a suit and say, “You look like a Nazi.” The student was confused, but before he could reply, the black-clad person pepper-sprayed him and hit him on the back with a rod.

Does this sound like a “flop” created by conservatives to support a false narrative or does it, once again, sound like violent progressives venting their rage on people they see as a threat? The NY Times’ claim that these incidents are part of a bogus narrative, and not a sign of a genuine problem with progressive protesters, is absurd and ignorant. Not only are conservatives routinely mobbed when they come to campus, some schools now use the likelihood of progressive mob action as an excuse to disinvite them.

Last October, PEN America, a group devoted to preserving the freedom of written expression, issued a report on campus protest behavior. The report stated, “a rising generation may be turning against free speech because some of its more forceful advocates have been cast as indifferent to other social justice struggles.” The PEN report did not agree with the NY Times that having conservative voices shut out of campus was part of a fake narrative. On the contrary, it suggested there was a real danger to allowing mob action to become an implied threat to speech:

The “assassin’s veto”—the ability of those willing to resort to violence to determine what speech can be heard—is anathema to free speech. It cedes control to the most extreme and lawless elements. It is the responsibility of the university administration and, where necessary, local law enforcement to ensure the safety of the speaker, the audience, and protesters.

The New York Times is right about the importance of free speech. It’s wrong to suggest the right has created a false narrative about this issue. In fact, these incidents keep happening because the progressive left now routinely labels speech it disagrees with as “hate speech” or worse still as the equivalent of violence. It seems the NY Times isn’t ready to admit progressives, on campus and off, are the real cause of this problem.


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