Who Will Stand Up For Campus Free Speech?

Troy Scheffler, a graduate student at Hamline University in Minnesota, thinks that the Virginia Tech massacre might have been avoided if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons. After e-mailing this opinion to the university president, he was suspended and ordered to undergo “mental health evaluation” before being allowed to return to school.

Punishment for expressing an opinion is not unusual on the modern campus. Neither is the lack of protest among faculty and students for the kind of treatment Scheffler got. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is defending the student, reports that it has failed to find a single Hamline student or faculty member who has spoken out in favor of Scheffler’s right to free speech. So far, no protest from has been reported in the student newspaper or in outside internet outlets such as Myspace.

Scheffler, it should be said, is something of a campus gadfly, with disdain for campus diversity programs and other policies. The university said Scheffler’s e-mails were threatening, but those messages, available on the FIRE web site, contain no semblance of a threat. Free speech was the core issue and still is.

Free speech has a very small constituency on the modern campus, particularly if the speaker under attack is conservative. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard, is certainly no conservative, but he had run afoul of the campus left on many issues, not just the heavily publicized one of women in science (suggesting more campus respect for patriotism and the return of ROTC to Harvard, warning the “coastal elites” that they have drifted too far from the American mainstream). So when feminists managed to cancel Summers as a speaker before the University of California board of regents, there was scarcely a peep of protest. The American Association of University Professors spoke out, and so did the Harvard Crimson. But in a couple of hours of searching the internet, I found only one professor nationally who complained about the treatment of Summers.

A similar silence greeted the cancellation of a speech by Minuteman leader Jim Gilchrist at Columbia University. Gilchrist and a colleague were driven off the stage at Columbia last year by angry radicals. Gilchrist was reinvited a month ago, but when the speech was announced, campus Hispanics, who consider him racist for opposing the flood of illegals into the country, pressured the relevant student authorities to ban him. The campus chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union thought about protesting but decided not to. Again, I was able to find only one professor willing to say that silencing Gilchrist was a bad idea. I asked Gilchrist if there were more. He said he knows of no other instructor who spoke out. The campus joke is that Gilchrist should have come out in favor killing gays and nuking Israel. Then he would have been as welcome as Mahoud Amadinejad.

The campus rule of thumb is that if someone on the liberal side is disinvited or punished for speech, the left will howl – and the right will usually howl too. This is what happened when the University of St. Thomas disinvited Archbishop Desmond Tutu for making remarks critical of Israel. After protests from across the political spectrum, he was reinvited. A better example is the hiring and almost immediate firing of liberal Duke law professor Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of a new law school at the University of California, Irvine. A huge number of conservatives protested, including professors and virtually the whole first string of nationally known conservative and libertarian bloggers. Chemerinsky was rehired.

The process doesn’t work in reverse – with liberals protesting the silencing of a conservative. It’s one of the most obvious flaws of the modern PC university.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

8 thoughts on “Who Will Stand Up For Campus Free Speech?

  1. “Based on your post, I would describe you as a bigot, and would encourage you to seek diversity training.”
    Fair enough, gringo. Can you recommend a diversity training program that will teach me to appreciate armed white supremacists?

  2. “Do you really think there is nothing threatening about those e-mails?”
    Scheffler is obviously unhappy about a lot of things; but it takes a very special kind of perspective to see a threat there – unless Palmer is reading something else that FIRE isn’t aware of.
    Here’s the some of the most “threatening” things he has to say:
    [1. Considering that accoriding to the university president that there were recently serious �hate crimes� that were committed in the womens bathrooms; there may be people on the edge ready to snap. I cant say I blame them, I myself am tired of having to pay my own extremely overpriced tuition to make up for minorities not paying theirs. On top of that, I am sick of seeing them held to a different standard than the white students (Of course its a lower and more lenient standard).
    2. On a lighter note… For a �Christian� university, I am very disappointed in Hamline. With the motif of the curriculum, the atheist professors, jewish and other non-Christian staff, I would charge the school with wanton misrepresentation.]
    A university unable to argue with these ideas can’t be serious. That it finds it threatening is absurdly dishonest. Compared to the standard criticisms on Jews and Israel that are romantically called “progressive” on elite universities, Scheffler’s are ultra-Zionist. Hamline Univerisity’s only defense is that it is not elite.

  3. Mr. Wauchope,
    I understand your point of view, but I must again state that context matters.
    Mr. Scheffler also did himself no favors with his poor spelling and structure either.
    In the wake of the VA Tech shooting and others in the past few years, many questions have been raised about why the dark and often violence filled writings of the shooters didn’t raise any alarm bells.
    Mr. Scheffler’s e-mails contained no threats of violence, implied or direct. However, the long run on paragraphs, lack of apostrophes, and non sequitor diversions away from his main point (students would be safer if allowed to carry weapons) to the hiring of non-Christian faculty and lower acedemic standards for minorities makes him sound (in light of the VA Tech tragedy) like a student with a grudge who may not be thinking very clearly.
    For me, it was an easy jump to wonder if he had a gun, might he choose to use it on one of the non-Christian professors or minority students that he believes do not belong at his school.

  4. I did read the letters for myself. While they are rude and not very professional, they are not remotely threatening. I would NOT be proud to have written those letters myself, but Hamline is way out of line. They are the ones issuing, and executing, threats.

  5. I disagree with both previous commentors.
    Schleffler is obviously outspoken and has opinions that are far from being PC, but to make him undergo a mental health evaluation because he spoke his mind is beyond the pale.
    His opinions can be agreed or disagreed with; but they do not constitute a threat. I hope FIRE succeeds in getting this rubbish removed from the student’s record.
    As for his opinions- he expressed several that I disagree with; I do, however, agree with him that the campus would be a far safer place if qualified students and instructors were armed. Feel free to call me whatever names you like, that won’t change my opinion on this (or any other) matter.
    As the article said, the core issue here is free speech, not whether you agree with Scheffler’s (or my) opinions.

  6. “Based on his emails, I would describe him as an angry white separatist, and would caution those who come in contact with him to be afraid of him.”
    Based on your post, I would describe you as a bigot, and would encourage you to seek diversity training.

  7. I have read Mr. Schleffler’s emails, and don’t think the word “gadfly” sums him up adequately. He is, among other things, unhappy with the presence of non-whites and jews on his “Christian” campus.
    The school says there are other incidents leading to his suspension, and they have thus done two things wrong:
    1) The suspension letter only mentioned the emails. If there is more, this was dishonest. If there is no more, the emails by themselves are not overtly threatening.
    2) If there are other accusations, the accusers must make them in public. Even rape victims have to face their attackers in open court.
    Nevertheless, I don’t doubt there are other incidents. Based on his emails, I would describe him as an angry white separatist, and would caution those who come in contact with him to be afraid of him.

  8. This post (and the many other’s I have read about this incident) are such crap.
    Scheffler was not required to take a psychological test for expressing the opinion that students should be allowed to carry weapons on campus.
    Do you really think there is nothing threatening about those e-mails? You don’t read his comments about being able to carry his weapons followed by complaints about hiring jews and non-christians, and the lower standards applie to non-whites and wonder if this kid has issues that he might decide to address with his weapons?
    I support the 2nd amendment. I believe in the individual right to own any kind of gun. I believe in free speech. I think that the liberal university establishment is guilty of attempting to suppress speach.
    But the right to free speech is not the right to say anything without consequences. And Mr. Scheffler’s comments were not made in a vacume. They were made within the context of a terrible mass murder at VA Tech by a student that had displayed antisocial tendancies that were not properly addressed.
    What if the university did nothing and Mr. Scheffler decided to act on his uphappiness with the perceived preferences given to minority students or the Jewish professors at his Christian university by taking his gun and killing a few of them? Then these e-mails come to light. How much screaming do you think there would be over the University ignoring the “signals” that something was wrong.
    In this case Hamline acting reasonably and prudently.

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