Photo Credit:
Richard Cravatts

When Chester Evans Finn, Jr., a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, observed in 1989 that university campuses had become “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” he was anticipating a troubling and prevalent trend now poisoning academia –namely, the suppression of free speech.

With alarming regularity, speakers are shouted down, booed, jeered, and barraged with vitriol, all at the hands of groups who give lip service to the notion of academic free speech, and who demand it when their speech is at issue, but have no interest in listening to, or letting others listen to, ideas that contradict their own worldview.


This is the tragic and inevitable result of decades of grievance-based victimism by groups that frame their rights and demands on identity politics and that have been successful in weaponizing this victim status to stifle debate.

In the space of the past two months, for example, tendentious and morally self-righteous progressive students, and some faculty, have displayed a shocking disregard for the university’s cardinal virtue of free expression, deciding themselves who may say what about whom on their respective campuses – and purging from campuses those ideas they have deemed too hateful, too unsafe, too incendiary to tolerate or to allow to be heard.

At Middlebury College, in one of the most astonishing examples, Charles Murray, political scientist, libertarian, and author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, was verbally assaulted by a crazed audience of students intent on shutting down his planned speech – a crowd that eventually surrounded Murray and a Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, and shoved them with sufficient force that she was hospitalized. “Your message is hatred, we cannot tolerate it,” the intellectual thugs screamed out.

At NYU in February, Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media and the host of The Gavin McInnes Show on Compound Media, was showered with pepper spray by agitated and raucous protesters before his scheduled speech.

Ezra Levant, conservative political activist, writer, and broadcaster, had to endure a similar experience at Canada’s Ryerson University in March when protesters set off alarms, pounded on doors, and continuously interrupted his speech while chanting, “no Islamophobia, no white supremacy.”

And at Berkeley, some 1,500 violent rioters – including members of the radical far-left Antifa group, feminists, gay activists, pro-immigration groups, and other faculty and students – lit fires, smashed windows, tossed smoke bombs, destroyed property, and pepper-sprayed and beat pro-Trump bystanders and conservatives, all because they opposed a speaker invited by the Berkeley College Republicans.

Something is clearly amiss on North American campuses, and the recent spate of disrupted events has brought to the forefront a troubling phenomenon on campuses that supporters of Israel have been experiencing for more than a decade already. Anti-Israel campus activists have conducted an ongoing campaign to delegitimize and libel Israel, and their tactics include a concerted and blatant attempt to shut down dialogue and debate – anything that will help to “normalize” Zionism, permit pro-Israel views to be aired, or generate support for the Jewish state.

The marauding bullies who were successful in suppressing the speech of conservative speakers whose views they had predetermined could not be uttered on campus share a common set of characteristics with the campus activists who have led the assault against Israel and Jewish students who support it.

They feel that they alone know what it acceptable speech, what ideas are appropriate and allowed, which groups are victims of oppression and should therefore receive special accommodation for their behavior and speech, which views are progressive (and therefore virtuous) and which views are regressive (and therefore hateful), which causes are worthy of support and which are, because of their perceived moral defects, worthy of opprobrium.

Repeatedly told by faculty and administrators that they need and deserve “safe spaces” where their sensibilities will not be offended, crippled with preconceived progressive fantasies about a world without conflicts where all cultures are equal, these students have become ill-equipped to defend their intellectual positions and therefore do not wish to inconvenience themselves by having to defend their views. Feelings, not ideas, are what count; emotionality now trumps rationality.

Ideas which are contrary to these social justice warriors’ acceptable worldview are dismissed as contemptible, not even worthy of being debated, or are neutralized by designations which characterize it as hate speech because it is, depending on the victim groups attacked, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, or homophobic.

So sure are they of their righteousness and ideology that they do not even try to hide their preconceived notions and evident bias against ideas they have decided are beyond the pale or unworthy of being given voice.

One telling example was a controversy involving The McGill Daily and its editors’ astonishing published admission that it is that paper’s policy to not publish “pieces which promote a Zionist worldview, or any other ideology which we consider oppressive [emphasis added].”

The notion that a vocal minority of self-important ideologues can determine what views may or may not be expressed on a particular campus is not only antithetical to the purpose of a university but is vaguely fascistic by relinquishing power to a few to decide what can be said and what speech is allowed and what must be suppressed.

No one individual or group has the moral authority or intellectual might to decide what may and may not be discussed, and especially young, sanctimonious students – whose expertise and knowledge about the Middle East, in particular, is frequently characterized by distortions, lies, lack of context, corrosive bias against Israel, and errors in history and fact.

The frequency and intensity of the disruption of pro-Israel events is shocking. The AMCHA Initiative, an organization that tracks anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity on campus reported that in February alone, pro-Palestinian radicals attempted to disrupt and shut down the following events:

* A University of Georgia pro-Israel rally called “Beyond the Headlines: Israeli Soldiers Tour” was interrupted by members of the toxic Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) tossing images of dead children around the room before they were escorted out by an armed guard, chanting “The occupation is terrorism” and “We will not allow justification of ethnic cleansing, occupation, and murder on UGA’s campus.”

* A University of Washington pro-Israel education display promoting peace was vigorously protested by Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER-UW) who complained repeatedly that the pro-Israel display was “too close to SUPER-UW’s display,” and, more preposterously, that the pro-Israel display was offensive and “triggers” them.

* A Florida State University Hillel-sponsored event where Israeli soldiers spoke was disrupted by SJP members who unfurling a large Palestinian flag, stood up during the presentation, and shrieked, “There are not many opportunities . . . to look my colonizers in the eyes with their hands bare of weaponry to tell them [that] what they are doing to Palestine and Palestinians is wrong . . . and so Palestine will never be taken away, it will never disappear and Palestinians all across the world are ready to return. They will return one day . . . Free, free Palestine.”

* A Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University event with Danny Danon, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations was roiled by protestors from the anti-Israel University Apartheid Divest who chanted, “Stop your murder, stop your hate, Israel is an apartheid state!” and “No peace on stolen land! Justice is our demand!” Some protesters broke into the lecture hall, interrupting Danon seven times while screaming out such chants as, “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go,” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

College administrators regularly give lip service to the enshrined value of academic free speech and robust debate about controversial issues, and that is an admirable goal and an intellectual environment in which scholarship and learning can thrive. But university communities also thrive when they operate with civility and decorum, meaning that when it comes to academic free speech, students and faculty have the right to express their ideas, no matter how controversial and unpopular, but they must do so in a way that does not interfere with the normal operations of the university or the ability of professors to teach and students to learn.

It was never the intended purpose of academic free speech to enable or permit students, for example, to scream out in protest in classrooms if they disagree with the instructor. Individuals cannot, under the protection of free speech, deprive others of their free speech rights – through disruptions, heckling, physical obstructions, or other tactics which have as their purpose to suppress and/or eliminate the speech of those with opposing views, including the threat of violence if certain controversial speakers are allowed air their views, the so-called heckler’s veto.

Most universities, as a matter of course, have codes of conduct which proscribe inappropriate speech and behavior; in fact, the 2014 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression by the University of Chicago, the “Chicago Principles,” appropriately noted that “the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.”

True intellectual diversity – the ideal that is often bandied about in academia but rarely achieved – must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones.

“. . .The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the Chicago Principles suggested.

“It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”


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Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., is president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and the author of “Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.”