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Mar
24

“Do Universities Have the Courage to Solve Their Free-Speech Problem?” by Kristen Waggoner

(appeared at National Review March 21, 2022… and very few other places)

 

Finding a university that voices support for free speech is easy. You would be hard pressed to find one that does not. Finding a university that puts such support into practice today is more difficult, if not impossible. And while I’ve known this for some time, I experienced it firsthand recently at Yale Law School.

Yale’s policy on free expression states that it is “committed to fostering an environment that values the free expression of ideas.” According to the policy, “the exercise of free expression on campus is subject to three general conditions: 1) access to a university event or facility may not be blocked; 2) a university event, activity, or its regular or essential operations may not be disrupted; and 3) safety may not be compromised.”

Speakers are “generally free to express their views, even if unpopular or controversial.” Students that disagree “may protest and express disagreement, but they may not interfere with a speaker’s ability to speak or attendees’ ability to attend, listen and hear.”

So far, so good. But a university cannot satisfy its “commitment to fostering an environment that values the free expression of ideas” simply by enacting a policy. That type of commitment requires much more. At a minimum, it requires enforcing the policy. Unfortunately, Yale appears unwilling to put its money where its mouth is.

I recently spoke at Yale Law School on the topic of remedies for First Amendment violations. The subject is not controversial; in fact, it is one on which members from both sides of the political spectrum agree. I am a conservative Christian, and I was joined on a panel by another lawyer — a progressive atheist, from the American Humanist Association. While we disagree on some very important issues, we wanted to demonstrate that we can still engage in civil discourse and find common ground when protecting civil rights. One issue we agree upon is a free-speech case I argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that united both sides of the political spectrum.

Sadly, 120 or so law students showed up to hurl insults and disrupt our discussion. Rather than listen and engage in civil dialogue, the vitriolic mob shouted down their professor who was moderating, and then me. After they were asked to leave, they chanted, pounded on classroom walls, and reportedly disrupted nearby classes, exams, and meetings. Even members of the Federalist Society, the student group that organized the event, were harassed and physically threatened by their fellow law students.

Think about that for a moment. At what is supposed to be one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, a room full of future lawyers, legislators, jurists, and corporate executives chose to bang on walls, use obscene gestures, and engage in name-calling and physical intimidation rather than act like adults.

One would think that an institution that is “committed to fostering an environment that values the free expression of ideas” would actually enforce its free-expression policy. At a minimum, it would strongly condemn these students who sought to silence ideas and people they disliked through bullying and intimidation. Unfortunately, Yale did neither.

Instead, Yale issued a weak statement that defended the student protesters and grossly downplayed their disruptive and petulant actions. Even more disturbing, Yale falsely claimed that the students did not interfere with the speakers’ ability to be heard. I, for one, was not able to speak without disruption. Have a listen to multiple audio clips of the event, and judge for yourself. Finally, the university said that a police presence was not needed. Again, that’s not true. The situation was so volatile that we required an armed police escort to leave campus in a patrol car.

Actions speak louder than words. Yale says it is committed to creating an environment of free expression. Its actions tell a different story, first through its inaction (refusing to enforce its policy) and then through its action (issuing a weak and inaccurate statement). Yale’s response demonstrates that it is less interested in its commitment to creating an environment of free expression than it is in appeasing the two-thirds of the Yale Law students who signed a letter complaining that police got involved in what the students mischaracterized as a “peaceful” protest.

“Fostering an environment that values the free expression of ideas” requires more than mere platitudes. It requires effort. It requires courage. Sometimes, it requires standing up to a mob and saying “Enough.”

Yale Law School supports free expression in theory, as do most other institutions of higher learning. But if it doesn’t muster the courage to enforce its policy and insist on a culture of free speech, it will teach our nation’s future leaders that the way to win is through belligerence and mobs rather than persuasion, critical thinking, and civility.

And that’s what tyranny looks like.

 

by Kristen Waggoner

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