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When Campus Intolerance Means Free Speech Gets Torn Up and Run Over, Literally

Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged. And if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should demand your money back.

I have been saying that line in speeches on campus for more than a decade. Even though it often gets a laugh, the idea that students have an overarching “right not to be offended” seems more entrenched on campus than ever.

Take one recent high-profile example: At the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), a professor not only seized a graphic anti-abortion sign from protesters, she got into a physical altercation with them and then proceeded to go back to her office to destroy the sign. Now that video of the incident has emerged and the police report has been put out, things are really looking bad for the professor, Mireille Miller-Young; she now faces vandalism, battery, and robbery charges.

I just wish I found the incident the slightest bit surprising. While FIRE proudly defends any university student or faculty member who faces censorship or disciplinary action for speech all across the political spectrum (and much expression that has nothing to do with politics), I make no secret of the fact that students and professors are more likely to get in trouble for socially and politically conservative speech. A case in point is currently taking place at my alma mater, Stanford University, where a student group that opposes gay marriage was told that a conference it was planning to have is “hate speech.” Not only did the student government refuse funding for the event, the group was told that it needed to pay $5,600 in “security fees” if it wished to have the event. FIRE wrote to Stanford about these illiberal restrictions on viewpoint yesterday. Now, the university has stepped in and promised funding to cover the cost of security. However, the issue regarding student government funding is still unresolved.

And when it comes to the trend of students and faculty members taking it upon themselves to engage in vigilante censorship, the target is often socially and politically conservative speech, especially speech against abortion.

The UCSB incident is eerily similar to a 2006 incident at Northern Kentucky University involving professor Sally Jacobsen, who urged her class “to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy [a pro-life] display if they wished to.” She then proceeded to lead her class to destroy the display. (I’ve included pictures of the incident in the new paperback edition of my book.) Another incident that was caught on video was that of University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point student government member Roderick King tearing up an anti-abortion display on his campus. King seemed even more confused about the concept of free speech than Jacobsen, declaring: “Since [abortion] is a right, you don’t have the right to challenge it.” And then there was this incident out of Missouri State University, in which a student proudly defended her trampling of crosses in yet another pro-life display issue, saying, “I feel like I have the right to walk across campus without seeing that.” These last three pro-life displays, by the way, were little more than collections of little white crosses.

Adding to this list of shame, FIRE just released a video featuring the story of student Robert Smith at Dartmouth College. In 2012, one of his fellow students hated his campus pro-life display so much that he actually ran over it with his car right in front of the student organizers. (This display was American flags, not crosses.) Not only was this move crazy and dangerous, it came with an ironic twist: the car had a “Coexist” bumper sticker on the back.

Incidents like this are part of the reason that the title of my book is Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. By “unlearning liberty,” we at FIRE generally mean that colleges and the campus environments they have established are teaching students all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society. For instance, this March, we are once again seeing the opening of what FIRE has dubbed “disinvitation season”: a now-yearly ritual in which students and faculty members band together to try to deny a place at their colleges to commencement speakers whose opinions they dislike.

Americans should be alarmed that students and even faculty members (who should know better) are turning away from critical thinking and reasoned debate, and instead learning to think like censors. It’s bad enough that 59% of universities maintain unconstitutional speech codes; it’s also unacceptable that so many students meekly accept when they are told they need to limit their protests to the tiny free speech zone on campus. But it’s far, far worse when students come to believe that censorship is what good and noble people just do.

Censorship has always been the easy way out, the way of imposing one’s view against the challenge of pluralism, but if a generation of students comes to see the well intentioned censor as a romantic hero, it will have terrible consequences for us all.

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