What are academic administrators waiting for?
Will it take injuries, hospitalizations, or something worse for them to stop turning a blind eye—or even tacitly condoning—the aggression we’re seeing from anti-free speech students?
In May, members of Congress heard a first-hand account of today’s academic dangers from former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines, who was mobbed by protestors and trapped in a room for hours after giving a lecture at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in April. She recounted hearing protestors outside the room say, “you were asking for this” and “she doesn’t get to go home safely.”
A top SFSU administrator said she was proud of these students. The university president applauded them.
The attack on Ms. Gaines was just one of many recent events that have devolved into violence or teetered on the brink of it. Michael Knowles was burned in effigy at the University of Pittsburgh, where someone also set off an incendiary device. When Matt Walsh spoke at the University of Iowa, someone spilled marbles all over the floor at one of the exits. Protesters smashed windows when Charlie Kirk visited the University of California, Davis. Visits by James Lindsay and Alex Stein to Pennsylvania State University were postponed indefinitely due to security concerns after an event featuring Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes was canceled last fall due to protests that turned violent.
And we should not forget Allison Stanger, who was hospitalized after she and Charles Murray were assaulted by protestors at Middlebury College in 2017.
The reactions to these speakers are antithetical to the very nature of academia, which should provide a forum for free and open discourse and inquiry. That is not possible under threat of violence. As Ms. Gaines concluded in her testimony, “Free speech suffers when university administrators do not condemn violence and kidnapping on their campus. It’s chilled when administrators do not adequately prepare for and protect the safety of their speakers, whether liberal or conservative.”
Students who shout down or violently protest guest speakers should be disciplined simply for disrupting the function of their college or university. But if defending the integrity of their institutions is not reason enough for administrators, then they should discipline students because it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured, or worse.
Campus leaders need to recognize that many of the students who seek to disrupt guest lectures are motivated by a belief that words are harmful, or even violent, and make people unsafe. In a recent survey of students in the University of Wisconsin System, 37% of respondents answered “quite a bit” or “a great deal” when asked how much harm they think people who express offensive views cause. Three out of ten said the same when asked if expressing offensive views could be seen as an “act of violence toward vulnerable people.”
Students expressed these sorts of views during many of the shout-downs that took place this past academic year.
When Ann Coulter was repeatedly interrupted until she gave up trying to speak at Cornell University last fall, one of the protesters yelled, “your words are violence.” A student at Northwestern University suggested that hosting James Lindsay puts students in “harm’s way” and asked, “When does concern for student safety exceed the institution’s fetish for unrestricted speech?”
Students who criticized the Stanford University administration for apologizing to Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan called on it to state “unequivocal support for the dignity and safety of trans and queer students.” After Riley Gaines visited SFSU, one student said, “Trans students don’t feel supported by the university right now, they don’t feel safe.”
If students believe that words are violence, and that speech threatens their safety, is it any wonder that real violence has erupted when an allegedly controversial speaker visits their campus?
In fact, many students seem to think that a violent response is justifiable. In the Buckley Institute’s 2022 student survey, 44% of respondents said it is sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker, while 41% said that violence could be justified to prevent someone from “using hate speech or making racially charged comments.”
To make matters worse, academic administrators often accept the idea that words can cause harm. See, for example, Stanford Law School Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach, who said that the campus “doesn’t always feel safe” and referred to speech “that feels harmful” before asking, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
SFSU President Lynn Mahoney said the Riley Gaines event was “deeply traumatic for many in our trans and LGBTQ+ communities,” while barely acknowledging what happened to Ms. Gaines, calling it a “disturbance after the event concluded.”
Recently, there have been signs that administrators might be ready to do something about this mounting aggression. Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez wrote a ten-page letter defending free expression. Cornell President Martha Pollack turned down a student request to mandate trigger warnings and announced that the next academic year will be devoted to free expression. The University of Pittsburgh’s provost has announced a “Year of Discourse and Dialogue.”
These efforts are needed. But academic administrators must also take decisive action against those who disrupt and shut down campus events that they view as harmful. If administrators do not punish this behavior with severe consequences, they are risking the safety of their campus communities and their guests.
This post appeared on Minding The Campus on June 2, 2023.