Last week a mob of chanting students prevented author Heather Mac Donald from speaking at Claremont McKenna College. After the students prevented entrance to the assembly hall, Mac Donald managed to give her talk by remote livestream for a while, until police cut her short out of concern for security; students had discovered her whereabouts and blocked all exits to the building. A noted author on a wide range of subjects (and former colleague of mine at the Manhattan Institute), Mac Donald has drawn particular ire of late by defending police departments against claims of racism brought by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Will the Colleges Even Try to Cope?
The campus attacks on speech are getting bolder and more organized, aren’t they? The night before Claremont, Mac Donald’s speech at UCLA had been disrupted, though with less physical obstruction. At Middlebury College last month, the assault on the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray came near to injuring him and did injure faculty member Allison Stanger. Nor are conservatives the only targets: last month Princeton philosopher Peter Singer was shouted down at the University of Victoria, in Canada, by disabled-rights activists accusing him of “able-ism.”
Having long ago tired of hearing apologies for such attacks on speech, I’m also tired of efforts to dismiss them as scattered incidents blown out of proportion. “You keep talking about six or eight episodes but there are thousands of campuses.” Think of all the books we aren’t burning!
In Britain, where “no-platforming” has been going on for some years, they’re franker about these things: of course, it’s an organized movement with goals. Early on the distinction began to blur between urging campus officials to disinvite someone, and physically preventing them from speaking once invited. By now it is accepted that the goal of no-platforming is to stop hated figures from speaking not just on campus but to audiences more broadly — before public assemblies, on broadcast media, you name it.
They Won’t Even Debate Free Speech
Rather than equivocating on the question of whether their adversaries should be free to be heard in public debate, student activists will now just flatly say no, they shouldn’t. (This is beginning to happen in America too.) And once “direct action” against wrongheaded speakers comes to be accepted, the terrible trio of institutional risk aversion, security expenses, and insurance considerations tends to do most of the rest of the practical work in disposing of targeted speakers.
At Claremont, as at some other campuses in comparable episodes, there has been bold talk of consequences. “Blocking access to buildings violates College policy,” announced Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh. “CMC students who are found to have violated policies will be held accountable.”
Well, that’s good. But if the script runs as before, his comment will stand in retrospect as the peak of any tough administrative response by the institution.
The working partnership between college administrators and security personnel, while successful in this instance at preventing injuries, will not turn out to have been optimally structured to gather the evidence needed for either criminal charges (should any be pressed) or college disciplinary action.
The College Censors Have Lawyers
The in-house process of investigation and discipline will be slow, while the national spotlight moves on. Affluent parents will hire lawyers to minimize consequences. The wider campus community of faculty and administrators, assuming it was privately on board with a hard line to begin with, will wobble. Time is on the disrupters’ side.
What’s particularly notable is that the Claremont action was planned in large part openly, on Facebook and other social media posts with visibility levels set to “public.” “Bring your comrades, because we’re shutting this down,” declared a Facebook event shared not only among students but by officially supported campus organizations like Pitzer Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault. (Pitzer is one of the five Claremont colleges.)
A training session for “accomplices” to the action was announced for the Scripps Student Union (Scripps is another of the five) with the advice, “For white accomplices: Please keep in mind that your role at this protest, aside from acting in solidarity with POC students at the 5Cs, particularly Black students, is to serve as a buffer between students of color and the police. That means, if the police come, it is imperative that you stay at the protest with fellow accomplices and engage with cops should it come to that.”
Training sessions for disrupters and allies are an important element of direct action, and they usually follow formulas closely informed by lawyerly knowledge of how to skirt the line of later-provable illegality. (Just because persons showed up in response to a call to “shut down” a speaker, can you prove they’re an unlawful assembly?) With the players prepared ahead of time, lucrative counter-claims can also be generated should police or authorities respond with too much force or the wrong kind of it or with the wrong timing.
Even if it doesn’t come to that, the university may find it difficult to establish precisely which students were responsible for what — and in this context, unlike that of a Title IX trial, federal agencies will not be in the background pushing for the use of standards more favorable to guilt-finding. Video evidence, if it exists, will be scantier than one might wish; reportedly angry demonstrators rushed student journalists from the conservative Claremont Independent whom they saw trying to videotape the events.
Why Not Ban Direct-Action Training?
If the will and the staying power were there, universities could fight back. Given advance word of an attempt to shut down speech, as they had in this case, they could make sure experienced videographers were there under university sponsorship to document what happened for the sake of both guilty and innocent. They could declare direct-action training (including for “accomplices”) contrary to university policy and deny meeting space to it. They could note as evidence students’ social-media promotion of calls for disruption, and strip university funding and official recognition from groups that openly promote such actions.
Failing such will, this is not going to stop with Mac Donald, Murray, Singer, or whoever is the next target after that, or the next, or the next.
Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Cato Institute