University of Oregon President Michael Schill was scheduled to give a “state of the university” speech last Friday but he never got the chance. Before he could start speaking, a group of several dozen protesters entered the hall and took over the stage, shouting slogans and making it impossible to carry on. From the Oregonian:
The loud group of a few dozen students did not have a cohesive message but did express concerns over tuition costs, with the leader referring repeatedly to “CEO Schill.”
Charlie Landeros, who led the march onstage and spoke using a bullhorn, said the group represented UO students who felt their voices weren’t being heard by university administrators.
“Over the summer there has been a huge proliferation of neo-Nazi propaganda plastered all over campus,” Landeros said, adding he feared it could escalate to a violent hate crime. “We’re here to stand against that.”
Not just to stand against it but to claim ownership over what anyone at the school, including the president, can say. In a video of the event by the Oregonian, protest leader Charlie Landeros said, “We’re here because we believe the university inherently belongs to the students.” He added, “Our demands will be heard. We will be heard…Expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” Here is what that illiberal resistance looks like:
Ironically, one of the points President Schill intended to make during his speech was about the importance of free speech and not resorting to shouting people down. From his prepared remarks:
At the core of any great educational institution is freedom of speech and its corrollary—academic freedom. These twin concepts are our religion…
Yet today, our commitment to freedom of speech is being tested more acutely than at any time since the Vietnam War. Fringe groups use the openness of the university to spread ugly messages of hate, xenophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism. They seek to incite a reaction which at some of our sister universities comes all too readily and violently.
In other instances and at other universities, students seek to disinvite or to shout down speakers they don’t agree with…
If someone says something we don’t like, we should not try to shut them down. That is not what we do in an open democracy.
Clearly, there are several dozen students at the university who have not grasped the concept of free speech in a democracy yet. And the University of Oregon is not alone in this. At National Review, Stanley Kurtz points out this is just one of several attempts to shut down speakers in the last week, none of whom were conservative firebrands:
Protesters also interrupted Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands during his State of the University address last week. At least in that case security escorted the protesters out and allowed the president’s speech to continue. Even so, it’s clear that the target list for shout-downs has expanded.
Last Thursday at Columbia University, students broke into a class being taught by former LGBTQ rights lawyer and Title IX administrator Suzanne Goldberg, to protest the school’s alleged mishandling of sexual-assault cases. The protesters left after reading their statement, but classroom protests earlier this year at Reed College resulted in canceled lectures. We’ll see much worse if administrators allow classroom disruptions to be normalized. That is clearly where we’re headed.
This follows a similar incident at Reed College in August where far left students shut down a Humanities class on the grounds that the content was “Eurocentric.”
As Berkeley recently pointed out on its website about free speech, disrupting a planned speech or a class is not how this works: “Freedom of speech would mean little if the audience was able to silence anyone with whom they disagreed. Once a society starts down the path of condoning such de facto censorship, it creates the culture and conditions in which anyone’s rights of speech can be compromised.”
The obvious thing to do would be to discipline anyone who acts this way but administrators seem hesitant to kick the hornets’ nest. In Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents is setting up a three-strikes system for student protesters who try to employ the heckler’s veto:
The policy to address the so-called heckler’s veto requires a student twice found responsible for disrupting freedom of expression to be suspended, and a student who disrupts three times to be expelled.
It defines offending students as those who engage in “violent or other disorderly misconduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others.”
That’s a step forward for Wisconsin system. Other universities ought to consider similar rules that set clear guidelines for students on what is acceptable and what is over the line. It’s time to shut down the heckler’s veto before it becomes normalized as a way to shout down everyone else.