Dr. Robert A. Scott is correct that no one has a right to be free of criticism for the views that they choose to express. What they do have a right to be free from is violence. In recent years, there have been far too many cases where individuals on campus have attempted to use physical force to shut down speaking engagements that they find objectionable.
There was an explosion of these incidents in 2017 following the election of Donald Trump. At the University of California Berkeley, there were violent protests against a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos that entailed throwing fireworks and rocks at the police and smashing the windows of the student union, causing over $100,000 of damage (1). At Middlebury College in Vermont, students physically attacked the author Charles Murray and the professor who invited him to campus, causing the latter to suffer a concussion (2).
One of the worst instances of mayhem on campus took place at Evergreen State College, where it was customary to hold an annual event called the Day of Absence in which minority students would voluntarily leave campus to demonstrate their importance to the community. In 2017, the organizers of the event decided to flip the script and ask white students to leave the campus. A professor of evolutionary biology by the name of Bret Weinstein responded with an email to the faculty explaining why he believed that this change was ill-advised.
In reaction, student activists descended on his lecture hall, disrupted his class, and falsely accused him of racism. When Dr. Weinstein attempted to engage the protesters in dialogue, they simply yelled back and refused to let him speak. The entire exchange was caught on video and is available for viewing on the Internet (3).
I encourage anyone who believes that cancel culture isn’t a problem on campuses to watch the video and judge for yourself who the mature adult in the room was. The activists then occupied the college president’s office and called in threats of violence to the police, forcing a campus lockdown (4).
Even when physical violence is not present, the threat of punishment from those in positions of authority can have a chilling effect on free speech. Professor Dorian Abbot was recently disinvited from giving a lecture at MIT on his field of geophysics because he had expressed opposition to affirmative action (5). At Georgetown, Ilya Shapiro was placed on administrative leave and investigated for a tweet in which he argued that President Biden should have chosen his Supreme Court nominee solely on the basis of merit without regard to race (6). A recent survey from Heterodox Academy found that 63% of students agree “that the climate on their campus prevents people from saying things that they believe” (7).
It used to be a standard tenet of liberalism that “I may disagree with what you’re saying, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it.” We seem to have lost sight of this key principle in recent years. What has been happening on campus over the last decade is as much a threat to our democracy as what happened on Jan. 6.
If we want a college campus to actually be a forum for open debate, then let’s commit ourselves to respect the right of all who speak to do so without the threat of violence or punishment and the right of those who wish to peacefully protest what is being said to do so as well, whether we agree or disagree with what they are saying.