Did our Revolutionary forebears have it all wrong? Do young social-justice warriors at elite universities have it right? Is it true or false that what Americans need is not the freedom of speech that is protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Do they require instead freedom from speech—any speech, that is, that offends the prevailing leftist orthodoxy at the bastions of what used to be known as liberal learning?
Maybe most Americans are not quite at the point of ditching freedom of speech, but universities are most certainly leading us that way.
In 2014, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, lamented academe’s wave of dis-invitations of controversial speakers and the resort to “trigger warnings” in classes to protect supposedly sensitive souls from bothersome topics. In his pamphlet Freedom From Speech (Encounter Broadsides), Lukianoff pointed out that in trying to live up to the impossible expectation of protecting individuals from any potentially difficult statement, “we risk devastating freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas.”
Since he wrote that, things have only gotten worse. Much worse.
It turns out so-called “snowflakes”—fragile souls demanding protection from speech that offends them or makes them feel unsafe—are not the biggest threats to speech. A much more dangerous menace is fast emerging. These perpetrators need a name, something the opposite of a gentle snowflake. “Intellectual thugs” will have to do until someone comes up with a better one.
If they don’t like you or what you have to say or believe, they want to shut you down, take you out.
Exhibit A popped up the final week of February at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where members of this thugocracy distributed hundreds of fliers urging students to violently attack so-called fascists (“bash the fash!”) Evidently, they define “fascist” as anyone not conforming to the dominant leftist worldview. Clearly, anyone self-identifying as a supporter of President Donald Trump by wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap would qualify as a target, judging from the thugs’ sketch of a baseball bat crushing one such person’s skull.
Writing about all this for the North State Journal, Independent Institute Fellow Michael C. Munger told of a meme being circulated nationwide arguing, “It’s okay to punch Nazis, and of course white male libertarians who advocate free speech.” In other words, Munger translated, “If you disagree with me, I get to punch you, provided I’m one of the anointed who has politically correct views.”
Munger, who directs the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke University, advises the young bullies not to get too cocky from being able to assault a “few isolated ‘fascists’ on their ideologically segregated campuses and ‘safe spaces.’” If violence goes large-scale, the state has the clear advantage given that it possesses all the firepower. “If it comes to violence, the state will win.”
“A generation whose entire experience with politics was vacuously validated by the Obama mass-hypnoses of 2008 and 2012 is suddenly confronted with the fact that one must persuade people,” Munger concluded. “You can’t force them to agree with you. … Rather than bashing, you might want to try talking to the folks who disagree with you. At worst, you’d be asserting the right to talk, and to disagree, even if your side no longer controls the coercive apparatus of the state.”
On Thursday, March 2, the thugocracy struck at Middlebury College, one of the top-rated liberal arts colleges in the country. They shouted down a public address by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray, who was there to speak to the themes of his recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, and their possible effect on the 2016 presidential election. Uninterested in engaging intellectually with Murray, the thugs violently sought to impede his exit and in so doing inflicted serious neck injuries on a Middlebury political-science professor, Allison Stanger. (Murray’s thoughtful reflections on this nightmarish evening are on the AEI’s blog.)
Most university administrations, including Middlebury’s, say they stand for a free exchange of ideas and academic freedom. However, their words will mean little if they capitulate to mob action aimed at enforcing freedom from speech. At public and private institutions alike, it is time administrators mustered the courage to expel students who deliberately shut down invited speakers and seek criminal prosecution of those who resort to violence to kill free speech.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.