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The University of Missouri: Ground Zero in the New War on the First Amendment

A year ago, the world watched as a small Missouri town near St. Louis burned in the wake of months of turmoil over the shooting of a young man named Michael Brown. Recently, all eyes have turned back to the Show-Me State and its flagship school, the University of Missouri. Situated in the heart of the state, Mizzou has become the personification of racism, student activism, and rather inadvertently, the continuing erosion of our freedom.

As a proud alumna of the University of Missouri – Columbia School of Law, I am deeply saddened and troubled by recent events. As a black woman and an American, I deplore any act of racism. Racism should never be tolerated, especially in our institutions of higher education. There is a reasonable expectation of safety and rational thinking that permeates the very fabric of our universities. That any student would be threatened or harassed is completely unacceptable.

However, I find the fallout of these events equally troubling. According to published reports, we are dealing with a handful of events perpetrated by isolated individuals, one of whom is already in the University’s disciplinary process. The identity of the others remains unknown. While these actions are contemptible, there has been no allegation that these racist acts were committed by any faculty or staff member.

I am well aware of Mizzou’s troubled history on racial matters. I have known a number of blacks who attended MU who complained about experiencing racism in some form or another in years past. While that was not my experience, I do not discount the experience of others. But as with all areas of America, I believe these incidents, while never acceptable, decrease over time.

I do not believe in government by protest where the loudest voices drown out reasonable discussion. Incidents of racism must be investigated individually and evaluated on the facts of each incidence. I resent Mizzou becoming the national poster-child of racism based on these specific incidents by people who may or may not even be students of the University.

Sadly, there will always be hateful people and imperfect ones. I fear that the University’s decision to erect a large edifice of a diversity bureaucracy will result in a scaffold for free speech. Future students will receive mandatory training on, among other things, how not to offend. They may even have “safe zones,” where they can be free from offense. But there is no constitutional right not to be offended. Either the First Amendment is alive and well or it isn’t.

There are those in our nation who hate free speech and are waging a war on it. Their new tactic is to threaten a person’s livelihood, career, and reputation if their speech is not approved, or if the person is perceived as too lax in enforcing restrictions on speech. The irony is rich given the protesters interfering with a photographer who was trying to report on the activities at Mizzou.

Silencing discord in order to avoid offending is never the answer. In a country where the First Amendment is still considered the most sacred of all the constitutional amendments, the concept of “hate speech” is as dangerous to our way of life as any foreign threat. If you can silence your enemies today, what’s to stop you from being silenced tomorrow? I loathe everything the Ku Klux Klan stands for, but I understand that my freedom of speech and belief is directly tied to theirs. If they can be stopped from spewing hate, I can be stopped from speaking love and reason.

The recent events at Mizzou mark the first new instance of a university being held hostage, but certainly won’t be the last. And much like what happened in the wake of Ferguson, this new movement has already begun to spread to other universities throughout the nation like a prairie fire.

I always have been and always will be a proud Tiger alumna. But I regret that my alma mater made history as the first target in a new campaign to further erode any trace of freedom of speech or dissent in our so-called institutions of higher learning.

Bev Randles is a Republican candidate for Missouri lieutenant governor, and is a former chairman of the Missouri Club for Growth. Learn more at BevForLG.com.

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