This week, we saw another incident of protesters shutting down an event to prevent others from hearing opposing views. At an event with commentator and author Ann Coulter, one protester yelled “Your words are violence.” It is the latest example of how some on the left are treating free speech as harm on college campuses. Unlike many other incidents, however, Cornell has stood by the right of the student group, Network of Enlightened Women, to hold the event and pledged to hold students accountable for the cancellation of the speech.
Students and faculty previously pressured Cornell to cancel Coulter as someone who engages in “hate speech” and declared her speaking on campus as harmful. Cornell stood with free speech. However, the event lasted only 30 minutes until protesters succeeded in shouting down Coulter.
One man is shown screaming “we don’t want you to be here, your words are violence... They are threats, you cannot be speaking here. We don’t want your ideas here! Leave! Leave! Your words are violence! Your words are violence!”Two students chanted “no KKK no fascist USA” as they are escorted out by security. Others blared circus music and blew whistles.
The Cornell Review reported a common tactic: protesters “seemed to be employing a chain tactic, beginning just as soon as the last heckler was removed, so as to continuously speak over Coulter.”
Joel Malina, vice president for University Relations at Cornell, told Campus Reform.“Eight college-age individuals were removed from the auditorium following Cornell protocols. All Cornell students among the disrupters will be referred for conduct violations.” He also apologized to Coulter.
Cornell is to be commended for its stance, particularly if it proceeds with appropriate sanctions for these students. The incident also shows the value of limiting these events to faculty and students of Cornell, who are subject to rules protecting free speech and open discourse on campus.
We have previously discussed the worrisome signs of a rising generation of censors in the country as leaders and writers embrace censorship and blacklisting. The latest chilling poll was released by 2021 College Free Speech Rankings after questioning a huge body of 37,000 students at 159 top-ranked U.S. colleges and universities. It found that sixty-six percent of college students think shouting down a speaker to stop them from speaking is a legitimate form of free speech. Another 23 percent believe violence can be used to cancel a speech. That is roughly one out of four supporting violence.
Faculty and editors are now actively supporting modern versions of book-burning with blacklists and bans for those with opposing political views. Others are supporting actual book burning. Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll has denounced the “weaponization” of free speech, which appears to be the use of free speech by those on the right.
We discussed this issue with regard to a lawsuit against SUNY. It is also discussed in my recent law review article, Jonathan Turley, Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. We have seen how in universities (including state schools) this can turn into a type of “heckler’s veto” where speeches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of protesters.
This has been an issue of contention with some academics who believe that free speech includes the right to silence others. Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over the use of a heckler’s veto on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, including a speaker from the ACLU discussing free speech. Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.
In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after she made a single analogy to acting like a “slaveholder” as a self-criticism for failing to achieve equity and reparations for black faculty and students).
A few years ago, I debated NYU Professor Jeremy Waldron who is a leading voice for speech codes. Waldron insisted that shutting down speakers through heckling is a form of free speech. I disagree. It is the antithesis of free speech and the failure of schools to protect the exercise of free speech is the antithesis of higher education. In most schools, people are not allowed to disrupt events. They are escorted out of such events and told that they can protest outside of the events since others have a right to listen to opposing views. These disruptions however are often planned to continually interrupt speakers until the school authorities step in to cancel the event.
Recently, we have seen convocations and other important events disrupted by such protesters. Universities will have to take a stand or lose control over their campuses. Students who disrupt classes or events must be held accountable if we are to maintain open and free discourse on our campuses.