This shameful act of censorship is a good reminder that even though angry far-left students are at fault in the majority of recent college free speech debacles, they are by no means the only or paramount threat to the First Amendment—on campus or anywhere else. Such a distinction belongs first and foremost to President Trump, whose repeated calls for muzzling of the press and abridgments of the speech rights of people he dislikes are, in the opinion of The Atlantic’s eminently reasonable civil libertarian Conor Friedersdorf, grounds for impeachment. Trump’s censorious supporters in California seem cut from the same cloth.
Has POTUS been asked squarely how he feels about audience members trying to shout down a speaker? He’s willing to de-license broadcast networks for unfair coverage, to loosen libel laws to make it riskier for the media to report on public figures, and occasionally to have his fans sock a protester at one of his own rallies in the face. He must be no worse than ambivalent about heckler’s-veto shoutdowns. At least when they’re being used by the right to silence the left.
And he’s not alone in that. John McLaughlin’s recent poll of college students produced this result:
John Villasenor’s survey of students was even more pessimistic, producing this data when he asked if it’s acceptable for a student group to silence a speaker by shouting him down:
Republican students are less likely than any other group to support shoutdowns but you’ve still got 30+ percent of them in each poll willing to condone the tactic. The number of Republican adults generally who condone shoutdowns is less — just 14 percent, per YouGov — but even there it’s double digits. As you’ll see below, the protesters in this case were all very much adults. Adam Steinbaugh, who wrote about this protest for FIRE, notes that this isn’t the first time the ringleader has tried to shut down an event featuring Democratic speakers either, citing a column in which he wrote, “I am prepared to be an uncivil civilian, and I don’t care who’s offended… Civility, accommodation, and playing nice with Republican and Democratic elected officials is over . . . . Making America great again is not about placating and pleasing everyone, but standing up for what is right, even if it means disrupting a few tea parties.”
David French tries to counter that “let’s be as bad as the left” thinking with logic:
Yet there are some “conservatives” who justify this new escalation (just like they justify public calls to fire radical professors who engage in offensive — but constitutionally-protected — speech) as a form of “fighting fire with fire.” It’s censorship in the name of freedom, and by making the Left “live under its own rules,” they’ll make the Left more reasonable.
This is as silly as it is unprincipled.
The radical Left simply doesn’t view the world the way these conservatives believe they do. They don’t care if Xavier Becerra speaks or doesn’t speak. They’re not truly grieved in the least that he was shouted down. After all, the heckling, disrupting wing of the Left barely tolerates most Democratic politicians. Instead, they see the world through the prism not of persuasion but mobilization, and the emergence of right-wing lawlessness is God’s gift to their own efforts to “take the streets.” It’s God’s gift to their own efforts to tell more moderate members of the Left that the Right cares nothing for the Constitution and only seeks power.
Right, I wrote about that fire-with-fire reasoning a few days ago here. Typically there are two justifications for it. One, as French says, is deterrence, that if only we club the left with their own tactics hard enough and long enough, they’ll stop. Specious, for just the reason French says. The behavior will mainstreamed more than marginalized. Two, per the ringleader’s justification, is that we’ve tried civility and gotten nothing for it so it’s time to try incivility (or more incivility) and see how that works out. That’s similar to the big-picture argument for nominating Trump last year: Sure, he’s a loose cannon, and yeah, his presidency could be a flaming garbage dump, but everyone’s unhappy with the status quo. Let’s try something radically different. Let’s be the snowflakes who try to silence a speaker instead of letting snowflakes silence us all the time. It’s another blow to America’s ever degrading civic culture, but you know what? It feels good. Fire-with-fire always does.