Why no one should be silenced on campus

April 9, 2009

WHEN CONSERVATIVE columnist Don Feder spoke at UMass-Amherst last month, his speech was cut short by a large group of students whose noisy and disruptive antics drove Feder off the lectern midway through his speech. As one UMass student wrote after the event, “I am embarrassed of the way my fellow classmates have chosen to express their discontent.” She should be – but she should also know that she is not the only one who is due for some embarrassment.

America’s campuses are seeing a growing movement by students to shut off debate by organized groups and silence speakers with whom they disagree. Rather than engage in the give-and-take that should be characteristic of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” these students have decided that opposing views don’t even bear hearing. And all too often they are aided by administrators whose policies reward hecklers rather than students who wish to engage in civil debate and dialogue.

UMass is one of those campuses. After word got out that students were planning to protest Feder’s speech, the UMass-Amherst Police Department pressured Feder’s hosts, the Republican Club, into paying nearly three times as much in security costs for the event as they had planned. Of course, the student hecklers disrupted the event anyway with no interference by the police.

Feder’s hecklers were thereby handed a double victory by the university – not only did they manage to silence Feder, but they also succeeded in forcing their political enemies on campus to pay a huge security bill for little return. This tactic was so successful it’s hard to imagine that the same UMass students won’t do it again, and it’s unlikely that the lesson has been lost on students who sympathize with Feder.

The real casualty of the heckling “arms race” fostered by such policies will be the possibility of getting a truly liberal education. The more violent and disruptive the threatened protest, the higher the security costs will be demanded of the host, giving those most willing to be violent the strongest veto over campus discourse.

At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, we tell students that if they have gone through four years of college without ever being offended or having their beliefs challenged, they should ask for their money back. John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 treatise “On Liberty,” observed that nobody is infallible, and that an opinion we detest might be right, or, even if wrong, might “contain a portion of truth” that we would otherwise have missed. Might Feder’s opinions have contained that “portion of truth?” UMass students may never know.

Charging a higher security fee for controversial speeches is not just unwise; on a public university campus it is also unconstitutional. In Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992), the Supreme Court struck down a county ordinance that permitted the local government to set varying fees for events based upon how much police protection they believed an event would need. The Court stated that “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” Public universities must meet the same First Amendment standard.

FIRE has asked UMass to revoke its excessive security fee for Feder’s speech – so far, without response. However, other campuses have begun to address the problem. After FIRE protested the University of California at Berkeley’s decision to charge a student group $3,000 to host a speech about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Berkeley agreed to reduce the fee to the normal amount and to use only viewpoint-neutral criteria to determine such fees going forward. FIRE has also asked the University of Colorado at Boulder to revoke a similar fee charged for an event featuring controversial professors William Ayers and Ward Churchill. CU-Boulder has yet to respond.

Berkeley has it right. The First Amendment has made America unique in the world in its respect for the rights of controversial speakers – some of whom, inevitably, turn out to be right. In a free society like ours, universities should serve as the ultimate “free speech zones,” where anyone’s ideas can be examined and discussed. Eliminating the “heckler’s veto” is the only way to ensure that the nation’s universities can continue to serve this vital function.

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Schools: Boston College University of Massachusetts – Amherst University of California, Berkeley Cases: University of Massachusetts Amherst: Student Group Charged Unconstitutional Security Fee for Controversial Speaker University of California at Berkeley: Prohibitive Security Fee Charged for Controversial Speaker