Freedom of speech under attack on campus

WASHINGTON

More and more, it seems, intolerance of thought has become a major problem where it should least exist: on the campuses of America’s colleges and universities.

Match that with a general misunderstanding of the First Amendment and the result is an intolerable atmosphere that aims at the very heart of higher education in our democratic republic.

An instructive example is the recent ill treatment of conservative author and philosopher Ann Coulter at one of the nation’s premier schools, the University of California, Berkeley. University officials first rejected a planned speech by Coulter on the grounds of safety.

When a storm of protest ensued, they backed off and offered a compromise that ultimately suited no one. Coulter walked away, leaving the school’s iconic image as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s badly tarnished.

To disenfranchise a person who has been invited to present ideas simply because those ideas are disagreeable to some, or even to a majority, has no place in the college agenda as long as hate or the promotion of illegal activity are not the speaker’s object. Any attempt to disrupt a legitimate political discourse should be met with the harshest discipline.

Someone should explain that to the leaders of Middlebury College of Vermont, a private school with (until now) a sterling reputation for excellence and freedom of expression. Middlebury College authorities dismissed a violent disruption of a speech by conservative author Charles Murray by 100 to 150 students with a slap on the wrist for 67 of them.

It was an almost embarrassing example of the sentence not matching the crime.

Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was invited by a conservative group to speak at Middlebury last March.

Another group of students objected strenuously on grounds that he had written “The Bell Curve,” a 1994 book that they consider racist because it linked socioeconomic status with race and intelligence. Their answer to Murray’s presence when he showed up was to shout him down when he tried to speak.

When he moved to another room for the talk, the protestors pulled fire alarms in the hallway. When he finished his speech, several masked persons appeared and began pushing and shoving him.

A faculty member who was interviewing Murray was attacked and suffered a concussion when her hair was grabbed and her neck twisted. After the faculty member and Murray got into a car, the protestors rocked it and jumped on the hood.

Last week the college finally acted. The students implicated, far from the actual number that participated in the disruption, received punishments ranging from probation to something called official college discipline, which amounts to a note being put in their file. Wow! They are scarred for life.

Missing, of course, was dismissal from the college or any other significant discipline for what the college admitted was a clear violation of its rules. Not enough time before graduation, they said.

The school’s president, Laurie Patton, apologized publicly to Murray and promised the protestors would be held accountable. Obviously, Middlebury doesn’t understand its obligations in preserving free speech or the principles of nonviolent protest — or, even more frightening, the First Amendment, which protects such speech from clearly illegal attack no matter how odious it may be to some.

Was Murray spouting extremely provocative “fighting words,” which the Supreme Court has designated as on the cusp of protected speech? Was he shouting fire in a crowded theater or inciting to riot or overthrow the government by violence?

Certainly not, although the illegal use of the fire alarms by the protestors is undoubtedly a criminal act that could produce terrible consequences.

Murray called the punishment “a farce.” He said, according to the press, that the disciplinary actions “are a statement to students that if you shut down a lecture, nothing will happen to you.”

The Middlebury Police Department issued a statement saying that no one would be arrested from the attack on the faculty member or damage to the car because it was too dark to identify the culprits.

Middlebury should be ashamed of itself. And its vapid excuses for not making lasting examples of these students whose concept of college freedom is so obviously twisted. Whether they understand it or not, their conduct stems from the same root as hanging nooses on doorknobs or painting anti-Semitic symbols on walls.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: thomassondan@aol.com.