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Is It Time to Rethink Campus Protest?

In a new era of protest and de-platforming, conservatives have defensively invested the First Amendment with a transcendent power and moral authority it does not warrant. What happens when equality and free speech are in direct opposition?
Protesters shout at each other during a free speech rally with Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California–Berkeley on September 24th, 2017, in Berkeley, California.

Protesters shout at each other during a free speech rally with Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California–Berkeley on September 24th, 2017, in Berkeley, California.

The guest of honor at this year's annual "Disinvitation Dinner," a Manhattan gala held every spring by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, was Charles Murray. Murray first made his name as a co-author of The Bell Curve, which posits controversial connections among race, IQ, and socioeconomic status. He has since become a lightning rod for campus dissent.

Murray is a frequent campus lecturer on the topics of race and science; his ideas have also been subject to substantial student protest. The most dramatic disruption to one of his speeches came last May, when Middlebury College students shut Murray down by (among other acts) pulling fire alarms, physically roughing up his faculty interviewer (giving her a concussion), and jumping up and down on the hood of Murray's getaway car.

The Middlebury attack was an extreme example of a mode of protest that's increasingly common at American campuses. In 2017, disruptions derailed presentations by Heather Mac Donald (Claremont McKenna College), Corey Lewandowski (the University of Chicago), and Milo Yiannopoulos (the University of California–Berkeley, the University of California–Davis), among others). William & Mary students shut down a talk by a speaker from the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbia University students shouted down and effectively ended a video chat with an anti-Islam advocate, and Georgetown University students gave the heave-ho to Benjamin Netanyahu during the interview portion of his talk. Earlier this week, even J.D. Vance was drowned out at the Appalachian Studies Association.

These incidents effectively bolster a liberal and left-wing opposition to illiberal ideas that threaten the ethic of inclusion that progressives so diligently foster on their campuses. But the protests are perhaps even more effective in empowering conservatives to defensively invest the First Amendment with a transcendent power and moral authority it does not warrant.

The most common conservative response to student protests is to highlight the supposedly dire threat posed to basic freedom of expression. Stanley Kurtz at National Review, after calling 2017 "The Year of the Shout-Down," declared that college campuses were experiencing nothing less than "a race between violence and silence." He proposed "campus free-speech legislation that directly addresses shout-downs." Another article in same publication included a video that noted, "in recent years, the foundational values of free speech and open inquiry have increasingly come under assault at American colleges and universities." When protesters at the University of Michigan shut down a debate about the effectiveness of Black Lives Matter, Rod Dreher at the American Conservative called them "campus fascists" before offering this: "You cannot have a university where racist bigots like that BLM ranter are allowed to run roughshod over the right to free expression and inquiry."

These responses are more than whiny outbursts. By invoking the gravitas of the First Amendment, conservative reactions to campus shout-downs promulgate the message that free speech is the central touchstone of civic life. Far more than liberals—who stress the ideal of equality over and above free speech—conservatives have, in response to these protests, weaponized the concept of freedom of expression to allow hatred and injustice to challenge the ideal of equality.

Some might say, "Well, that's the cost of liberty." But the conservative lionization of free speech obscures an essential historical context. The late Yale University historian Edmund Morgan explained in his landmark book American SlaveryAmerican Freedom that colonial Virginians—and, by extension, all Americans—were able to embrace the political liberty that drove the American Revolution because of the social and economic benefits of slavery.

With laws enforcing the enslavement of black bodies, whites could defuse the debilitating class conflict that wracked Virginia before the onset of slavery—see Bacon's Rebellion—while growing a cash crop (tobacco) that integrated colonial America into the booming Atlantic economy. When the time came to rebel against England, slavery made it possible for colonists to do so. It was in this environment—one where the United States was strengthening its grip on the institution of slavery—that the concept of freedom was codified in the First Amendment.

If the roots of the First Amendment are tainted by the blood of slavery, the Declaration of Independence provided Americans the opportunity to imagine their way out of that tainted past, and, over time, establish the basis for a more just society. The notion that "all men are created equal"—and we now extend that idea to all humans—was easily mocked as an ideal articulated in a republic that enslaved roughly one-fifth of its populace. The founding fathers didn't offer the statement as a simple description of their own century, but to point ahead, as well, to a better future—one where all humans were treated as if endowed with the same fundamental human nature.

We're hardly there. One reason behind America's failure to achieve the equality promoted in the Declaration is that hateful ideologies routinely hinder the quest for equality. They do so, moreover, by gaining ersatz legitimacy under the guise of free speech. In this juxtaposition, free speech and equality are fundamentally at odds—with liberals and conservatives taking positions on either side of the divide in order to promote competing agendas. Perhaps without knowing it, what campus protesters are doing when they shout down a speaker who promotes racism and homophobia (such as Yiannopoulos) is privileging equality over free speech.

The implications of this distinction are potentially revolutionary. It has long been a sign of American patriotism to embrace the phrase (often attributed to Voltaire, but really from a paraphrase of Voltaire by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The sentiment has become the litmus test of emotional loyalty to American values. But what if that mantra is becoming an excuse to peddle hatred at the expense of equality? And what if drowning out campus speakers only strengthens that mantra?