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campus culture wars

As the campus anti-free speech movement grows in strength and intensity, President Obama—for the second time in three months—has emphasized the importance of free and open debate at U.S. universities. Here are some excerpts from the president’s comments in an interview with George Stephanopoulos:

And it’s interesting, you know; I’ve now got daughters who—one’s about to go to college. The other one’s going to be on her way in a few years. And then we talk about this at the dinner table. And I say to them, Listen, if you hear somebody using a racial epithet, if you hear somebody who’s anti-Semitic, if you see an injustice, I want you to speak out, and I want you to be firm and clear, and I want you to protect people who many not have voices themselves. I want you to be somebody who’s strong and sees themselves as somebody who’s looking out for the vulnerable.

But I tell them, I want you also to be able to listen. I don’t want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up, and that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side. And so when I hear, for example, folks on college campuses saying, “We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus… because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas,” I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism and I think you’re not going to be as effective. […]

And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. You know, and yes, does that put more of a burden on minority students, or gay students, or Jewish students, or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them. But you’re not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society that those students want without taking it on in a full and clear and courageous way.

These comments are quite welcome, but it’s important to note two qualifications. First, the president has yet to acknowledge the very substantial role his administration has played in fomenting the PC movement, by using federal equal protection laws to order universities to restrict due process and freedom of speech (however much it may later have walked some of those efforts back). Second, his critique of campus illiberalism is not as strong as we would would like. His remarks suggest that the only problem with shutting down opposing viewpoints is that “you’re not going to be as effective.” In fact, the problems with the authoritarian strategies that activists have been employing run much deeper than that. These strategies violate other students’ fundamental rights and they obscure the fact that much of the underlying activist agenda is quite misguided.

Still, the president was clearly not aiming his remarks at critics of campus PC. He was aiming them at the overzealous left-wing students who have been making national headlines with their illiberal tactics over the last several weeks. Political leaders can often be effective when they take on members of their own coalition, so it’s possible that the president’s remarks will have a real impact on the campus crusaders. But we’re not getting our hopes up, either.

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  • Jim__L

    This all stems from a misreading of the First Amendment — the fallacious idea that we should have “freedom *from*” rather than freedom *of*.

    The PC thought police on campus want freedom *from* speech. The likes of Melissa Click also want freedom *from* the press.

    That is not the preposition used in the Constitution, and for good reason.

    • qet

      An interesting observation. Classical liberalism regards freedom generally as “freedom from,” as in, freedom from government restraint. The children, having been to busy storming libraries to read a book or two, and consequently having no idea about this or anything else, advance a corrupted variant of this idea by imagining their freedom as freedom from my freedom.

    • FriendlyGoat

      The Constitution and its court interpretations entitle Americans to have “freedom from” religion in the public sphere, because of the sixth through tenth words of the text of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

      The rest of the amendment refers to what government may not prohibit. It is correct to say that we do not have freedom “from” free speech, the press, assembly and petition for redress. It is not correct to say that all “freedom from” is bunk—-because we actually do have freedom from government advancing religion.

      • Jim__L

        “Free from” takes the Establishment clause too far, and infringes on free exercise. I’m aware that an arrogant black-robe disagrees with that, but our country’s experience since that decision shows his reasoning was, as I said, bunk.

        I’m also aware that the arrogant black-robes believe that they have the standing to establish (force) morality on the US population, so long as that morality is not associated with a religion the elites consider beneath them. This further destroys their credibility.

        Also from your reasoning, the government would seem to be free to set up an Established Press and Established Speech (codes), which would basically destroy the spirit of the first amendment. A different interpretation is called for.

        • FriendlyGoat

          To your last paragraph, the First Amendment, as it stands, does not appear to keep government from establishing a press, but it would only be one voice among many if government cannot silence other differing voices. We could argue that National Weather Service, CDC (health issues), USDA (food issues), FDA (drug issues), PBS (entertainment and information issues) are all forms of “presses” putting out information. Hard to imagine how the government could establish a speech code, however, since government technically cannot limit any speech. A “code” is a set of limits we can’t do.

          As for the black robes, six Catholics and three of Jewish persuasion at the moment. No Protestants. No atheists.

      • qet

        I have to agree with Jim_L here, FG. The Establishment Clause was intended to prohibit a requirement that someone join a particular church or sect, or otherwise conform to its moral tenets or ritual practices. It does not mean that a person has a right to have all religious images and symbols banished from one’s sight. The idea that because the sight of a religious symbol displayed in a “public” forum offends you, the Establishment Clause entitles you to have it removed, hidden away, based on the implausible reasoning that by allowing it merely to be laid eyes on the government therefore is somehow “endorsing” the particular religion whose symbol it is, is absurd.

        • FriendlyGoat

          I agree. The war on symbols by some is worse than silly. Symbols in our sight do not coerce any of us. But the solution for those of us who like crosses, nativities, the Star of David and other such things is to put them in public view from private property rather than to disdain that part of the First Amendment. We are all fortunate that we do not have religious doctrine permitted as part of our politics. It would be more unfortunate for various Christians, for instance, than for the atheists if we actually had Catholics and Protestants competing in elections to control national “doctrine”—-a thing thankfully impossible in this country.

  • qet

    I expect that the campus thug mobs will believe Obama’s remarks are not sincere (wink wink), and are said only to mollify old coots and white folks whose campaign donations the Democrats still really need. I do not anticipate one student at one college to relent in his mobbery because of these remarks.

    • Dale Fayda

      I suspect you’re right. Just like Obama’s remarks on his support of traditional marriage, his rejection of the health insurance mandate, his stated intentions to unite the country and to work with his political adversaries, his desire to win his “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, his promotion of “clean coal”, etc. – statements made during his ’08 campaign. EVERYONE (liberals and conservatives) knew that he didn’t really mean any of this – it was all just political lip service. I can certainly extend this list of expedient platitudes spouted by our boy-king, but I’m sure you’re already aware of most of them.

      And I’m 100% sure that these new PC Red Guards know this also.

  • Beauceron

    There hasn’t been free speech or open debate on campuses for years. They’re just being more aggressive about it now.

    More troubling is that, as many other Leftwing campus efforts, this will filter out into the broader culture.

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