Colleges Still Lack Integrity on Canceled Speeches


At Middlebury, where Charles Murray was prevented from speaking about the disintegrating white working class, college president Laurie Patton made some appropriate comments on the need for free speech. But her remarks seemed slightly out of focus, as if the crisis revolved around discord between two groups of students, not basic freedom of expression, and that the job of Middlebury was to help guide disputing factions into getting along.

In a March 4 statement to the campus, Patton wrote: “The protests and confrontations in response to Charles Murray’s appearance laid bare deep divisions in our community. The campus feels different than it did before. It will take time and much effort to come together, and what the future ultimately looks like may not be anyone’s ideal—at least not for a while. We have much to discuss—our differences on the question of free speech and on the role of protest being two of the most pressing examples.”

This is verbal dithering. Free speech is not a “question” for discussion. It’s an essential need of any college or university. Without free expression, a college or university becomes a seminary for the dominant campus faction. Or as liberal scholar Robert Reich, puts it, “colleges become playpens.” Patton calls for everyone to submit community-building ideas for consideration. Compare Patton’s meandering comments to this focused one from a column by John Daniel Davidson of the Federalist:

“Our college students have come to this impasse in large part because their parents, high school teachers, college professors, and school officials have all failed them. They have not only refused to instill in them a reverence for the First Amendment, they have taught them to despise the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the very things that protect their right to protest. In so doing, they have turned them into the thing they claim to despise most: fascists.”

Note that 65 of Middlebury’s professors signed a statement strongly backing free speech. Good. But that’s just one-fifth of the faculty; 240 didn’t sign. Nationally, faculties have not been a factor in supporting free speech. As in most issues of college decline, they have been quiet onlookers. Meanwhile, a few people on the left dream of a hate-speech exception to the First Amendment, or think the exception has already been made. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean tweeted on April 20, “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.” He is quite wrong.

Another concern is the endless delay.  Patton warned that sorting out the facts of the March 2 shout-down of Murray would take time. Nine weeks later, with classes at Middlebury ending in mid-May, many are concerned about the administration running out the clock without suspending or expelling any of the perpetrators.

Since February 1, when violent and masked demonstrators, canceled Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, starting fires, tossing Molotov cocktails, beating people in the crowd and giving at least two people concussions, we count ten campus speeches or events disrupted or canceled on campuses. The responses by the colleges and universities has been meek with little taste for standing up to the visiting thugs.

When Yiannopoulos attempted to speak at Berkeley, police kept inside a building making no attempt to take control while the riot proceeded outside. Primary administrators (Patton at Middlebury, Chancellor Nicolas Dirks at Berkeley) have let us know at length what they think of Murray and Yiannopoulos. But nobody cares what their opinions are, just that they will act responsibly to keep the peace and let free expression proceed.

Meeting no resistance, violent agitators are likely to push further each time, though the end of the school year may postpone increasingly disastrous behavior. But college administrations will have to change and defend their campuses. That will mean a willingness to make arrests, to expel anyone showing up for a campus talk in a mask, to film the disruptions and to make decisions on penalties before months of delay have passed.

The disruptions and violence aren’t going to fade without some show of resistance. Keep in mind that the University of Missouri, after offering no resistance to Ferguson-related riots on campus, had to close four of its dormitories because many fewer students cared to attend a university that couldn’t keep the peace.

The University of California, Berkeley, after canceling Anne Coulter’s scheduled speech and hearing that she was determined to deliver it on April 27, announced that she would have to deliver it on May 2, a dead time on the academic calendar. This is gamesmanship, showing only the university’s disdain for the speaker. Having flubbed the Yiannopoulos speech, the university plays games with the Coulter talk. When will the colleges and universities act with basic integrity?


  • 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.

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5 thoughts on “Colleges Still Lack Integrity on Canceled Speeches

  1. The question: “When will the colleges and universities act with basic integrity?”

    The answer: When they — in the form of their leadership — begin to possess basic integrity; when they come to value basic integrity…and then … only after they generate the courage to display it.

    Sadly, we find in that select group of Upper Uppers only a collection of Bartleby’s & Heep’s, a few Mr. Potters, and more than our fair share of Dilbertian Pointy-Head Bosses & Wally’s. This the face of Higher Education. Some remarkable individuals, no doubt — even a blind pig finds an acorn occasionally — but the slick majority specialize not in Leadership, not in Vision, not in Bold, or Rigorous or Demanding, but rather in “going along to get along”. That and glad-handing and fund-raising (with a minor in Rhetoric Spouting and Resource Management (otherwise known as cost cutting)).

    Cruel, perhaps, but terminally true…and more than a reflection of the progressively, ‘social-justicey’, cultural-political & big business environment which has come to characterize the American College Campus.

    To value Free Speech, unfettered Free Speech, requires a deep & abiding understanding of the Constitution and the philosophies which guided its formation. To stand for Free Speech in the face of violent opposition, social & cultural ostracism, and negative media coverage (all of which reduces future revenue streams) requires a bone-deep comprehension of the purpose of Higher Education, requires the discernment to distinguish Principle & Priority, and an unstinting commitment (in true Davy Crockett fashion) to know what’s right and then go ahead. It requires, in other words, in that President’s office, a Conservative — in the truest sense of the word: one who recognizes and values the Western Tradition, the sanctity of the institution of higher education, the weight of history, and the blood of sacrifice which created this amazing opportunity to learn & grow.

    So where are they?

    How do we find them in this Wilderness, when all we see are Placating Bureaucrats and New Neville Chamberlains, crying “Peace in our time…. Well, that and Diversity, Inclusion, and Egalitarian Social Justice!” All that and more as they write the latest ransom checks to those who throw the loudest tantrums. “Need a safe space? Your own student center? More faculty & students who look & act like you do? More scholarships? Lower entry hurdles? More culturally sensitive graduation requirements? No voices telling you what might make your belly feel all woosie?? Step right up & tell us what it’s gonna take to make you happy, today, this time, for awhile.

  2. I agree that speakers should not be cancelled because of the threat of violence. But I would be far more upset about cancellations if they were aimed at speakers who were not publicity-hungry intellectual lightweights who make their livings by throwing verbal firebombs. Where are the faculty advisers who are supposedly helping these conservative student groups find and schedule speakers?

    1. EB — My experience (as a former Republican faculty member at a different campus than Berkeley) was that student Republican groups had little interest in attention from faculty. They were more interesting in complaining about their plight, and occasionally inviting some “conservative” publicity hound for a campus address. Then it was the likes of David Horowitz; now I guess it’s people like Milo Y. and Ann Coulter. (I don’t include people like Charles Murray because I consider him a serious scholar, and a serious intellectual figure).

    2. But that is exactly the point…

      That those we ourselves might categorize as “publicity-hungry, intellectual lightweights” are being stoned & crucified by the Mob should not alter or minimize in any way at all our outrage at their crucifixion. In many ways, it’s even worse.

      If the Mob silences so viciously such “lightweights”, what would they do to those who possess substance we would, in our certainty, more fully recognize?

      First they came for the Lightweights, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Lightweight.

      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Jew.

      Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  3. John Leo is being stupid about Berkeley. He has no idea how hard is the situation there. Picture running a campus normally with days of Ferguson-style violence going on. If he had ever been in Berkeley during a big riot, he would understand what I’m talking about. Basically, the campus would be shut down, with tear gas all over the place, the buildings closed. At great expense in property damage and police expense. It might be necessary to call in the National Guard. I’ve been there, right in the thick of it, I know. At some point, serious injury is likely (perhaps already happened), fatalities a real possibility.

    I don’t pretend to have a good answer, but I know that glib talk about Berkeley being “meek” or not supporting free speech or even suppressing or censoring free speech is not helpful, to say the least. It is actually very dishonest (or ignorant).

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