Protest Brawl at Columbia: Free Speech Loses

October 6, 2006

With the incredible volume of free speech controversies arriving seemingly daily from Columbia University, it’s reassuring to know that some members of the university community in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights remember what free speech is all about.

The Columbia Spectator makes The Torch yet again this week, publishing a pair of dead-on commentaries regarding the violent protest that erupted at a College Republicans-sponsored lecture by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist.

First, in a Spectator staff editorial, the paper makes absolutely clear that free speech demands the ability to listen as well as to speak. The paper writes:

The actions of the student protestors were absolutely disgraceful and undermined legitimate political concerns. There is an immeasurable difference between a peaceful, respectful protest and a rowdy, violent one. This type of mob-rule activism damages Columbia’s reputation and stifles the potential for free speech on campus….At the end of the event, the protesters didn’t even give Gilchrist a chance to say anything. Their actions resound as a cry not against his ideals but against hearing them in the first place.

Next, in a powerful, eloquent Op-Ed, CU alum Ben Widlanski identifies the exact problem with the protestors’ response, asking:

When did an opinion (any opinion) become so revolting and odious that the only option available to highly erudite Columbia students is to shout and drown out the voices of opposition? When did the free exchange of ideas become so dangerous that debate could not be allowed and only violent intimidation is an appropriate response?

Widlanski’s crucial point—that “if a view is unpopular, we must actively defend it so as to prevent its extinction through tacit intimidation”—is a guiding tenet of our nation’s constitutional commitment to the free exchange of ideas, unabridged by the clamor of the mob.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the school’s stature, the controversy at Columbia has sparked critical commentary outside of the university. Today, the New York Post weighed in with harsh words for Columbia. Today’s Post Opinion, entitled “Columbia’s Speech Thugs,” asks: “Can it be true that free speech at Columbia applies only to those who are deemed ‘legitimate’ by a self-proclaimed group of political purists?” Citing this incident as well as the hockey club debacle, the Post writes that:

Columbia has a long and proud relationship with New York City. Until lately, it has been a champion of the principles and values that make the city a beacon of freedom to the world. Again, until lately….Thuggery of the sort that occurred Wednesday is unacceptable anywhere – least of all at a great university.

Contempt for the demonstrators’ tactics could be found today as far away as California, as the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, was also highly critical of the protest. The Daily Bruin wrote:

It’s nothing more than hypocrisy when a group of student activists tries to prove how open-minded they are by shutting down a viewpoint that opposes their own….Activism on a college campus is often a noble thing, but to violently shout down another’s ideology is hypocrisy for anyone who values free speech.

Hopefully, as the dust settles, Columbia students will reexamine their methods of voicing disagreement—this time realizing that in our free society, as Ben Widlanski sagely notes, freedom of speech requires that “everyone who has something to say should be allowed to say it.”

Schools:  Columbia University