Masked and dressed in black, approximately 150 rioters streamed into the area around the student union of the university on the night of February 1. The rioters threw rocks and fireworks at police, set fires, broke windows, and threw Molotov cocktails, causing $100,000 in damage and minor injuries.
The rioters’ stated goal was to disrupt a speech scheduled for that evening by a controversial editor of Breitbart News, Milo Yiannopoulos. They succeeded; the university canceled the speech.
The instigators of the violence were nonstudents, according to a UC-Berkeley police spokesperson, who said the rioters were agitators who use “black bloc” tactics: masks, shields, black clothing, and violence. Police Magazine describes such groups as “criminal anarchists.”
One person among the agitators was arrested after the campus police told everyone to disperse. Police at UC-Berkeley say they are continuing their investigation into the attack.
Rise in ‘Disinvitations’
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a watchdog group advocating for free speech on college campuses, reports speakers are increasingly being disinvited, forced to withdraw by protests, and forcibly prevented from speaking at college campuses across the country.
FIRE reports there were 42 such incidents in 2016, making it the worst “disinvitation” year since the organization began keeping records in 2000. Eleven of those disinvitations involved Yiannopoulos, whom the British Telegraph describes as an “ultra-conservative British journalist and provocateur.”
Giving Up on Academic Freedom?
Ashley Thorne, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, says there is a prevailing attitude of closemindedness throughout the nation’s higher-education system.
“I believe the uptick in disinvitation attempts stems from the growing belief that we have the right not to hear beliefs that we find offensive,” Thorne said. “Harvard student Sandra Korn put this idea most clearly in her 2014 Harvard Crimson article, where she wrote, ‘Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.’ Willingness to hear and debate competing ideas is an idea of the past, she explained. Instead, colleges should be able to choose sides on controversial issues and decree that the other side is so heinous that it cannot be articulated on their turf.”
‘It Is a Vicious Cycle’
Thorne says students have been trained to be intolerant and pass on their bigotry to succeeding generations.
“Students are leading this charge now more than administrators and faculty members, but it is because this is the mindset they have been taught in school, news, and entertainment,” Thorne said. “It is a vicious cycle of students rising up to become teachers of intolerance.”
Model Legislation Offered
To address this widespread curtailment of speech, the Goldwater Institute, a state policy think tank in Arizona, has joined with Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, to propose model legislation protecting free speech. The model legislation was designed for state legislatures and portions could be adopted by university system governing bodies.
The legislation would override speech codes imposed by universities restricting free speech; require disciplining of students who inhibit speech (while ensuring due process for those accused of such violations); and enable those who believe their speech rights to have been violated to sue in court and, if proven right, to obtain attorneys’ fees and court expenses from the defendant.
First Amendment Insufficient Now
Jenna A. Robinson, president of The Martin Center, says the model bill simplifies colleges’ authority.
“I wish the First Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution] were enough to ensure that students’ free speech rights are protected,” Robinson said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case on many campuses. Universities have proved themselves irresponsible stewards of student rights. The Goldwater Institute’s proposal to protect free speech through new legislation takes the issue out of administrators’ hands.”
Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Stanley Kurtz, James Manley, and Jonathan Butcher, “Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal,” Goldwater Institute, January 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/model-legislation-to-protect-campus-speech