The campus protest movement is spreading beyond Yale and the University of Missouri to other campuses like Amherst. While activists seem to have a variety of goals, some of them laudable, a repeal of traditional free speech norms in the name of creating “safe spaces” seems to be one of the movement’s unifying objectives. Here is one item in a long list of demands released by a coalition of students at Amherst College:
President Martin must issue a statement to the Amherst College community at large that states we do not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the “All Lives Matter” posters, and the “Free Speech” posters that stated that “in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.” Also let the student body know that it was racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus and beyond who are victim to racial harassment and death threats; alert them that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.
In other words, students are quite literally demanding that the college condemn and threaten disciplinary action against students who dared to take the position that freedom of expression is important. And anyone who still thinks that the anti-speech movement is confined to the more radical corners of campus should look at the list of student organizations that signed on to that statement. They include such groups as the Equestrian Club Team, the Choral Society, the Amherst Christian Fellowship, and Club Soccer, not organizations created to organize around this kind of advocacy.
If the unrest continues, and if activists continue to make crushing dissent a core part of their agenda, the entire campus left is in trouble—more trouble than it knows. As Fredrik DeBoer notes, it is only a matter of time before campus politics wind up in statehouses, where Republicans are in a position of almost unprecedented strength.
It might not be clear to protesters in insulated campus hothouses, but the majority of the American people do not accept the notion that political pluralism is an inconvenience that can be tossed aside cavalierly. The next time state legislatures debate funding, tenure, and higher education policy, it seems highly likely that campus political culture will come up. If it does, left-wing campus interests are in trouble. Activists might be able to roll over timid university administrators with fanatical demands and sit-ins, but state politicians will not respond in the same way. Take, for example, Scott Walker’s successful scorched earth campaign against the University of Wisconsin, which was undertaken before the latest bout of campus illiberalism that is sure to confirm many voters’ perceptions that something is very wrong in the American higher education system.
And it’s not only public universities that should be concerned. State governments have some control over the purse strings of private universities as well (both directly, through scholarships and grants, and indirectly, through tax write-offs on donations), and they have the power to make that funding contingent on certain political requirements. In the 1990s, after Stanford tried to appease protesters by passing a speech code, California’s (overwhelmingly Democratic) state legislature promptly passed a nearly unanimous resolution making such codes unlawful at all universities, public and private.
The American people as a whole stand behind the Bill of Rights, even if college students don’t. Any mass movement blithely tossing the First Amendment aside is playing with fire.