Shut Up. No YOU Shut Up.

Is it really that simple? Do our current campus “free-speech” debates boil down to a simple shouting match? As we’ve seen, conservatives and progressives have both fought to defend speech they agree with. And both sides have a history of threats and intimidation against speech they don’t. In spite of these similarities, I can’t help but think the two sides are very different. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservative activists have lately pushed a spate of campus free-speech laws. They hope to force colleges to allow controversial conservative speakers and ideas.

middlebury protesters

Shutting down Charles Murray at Middlebury

Some conservatives think that progressive activists have clamped down on free speech. They cite cases such as the recent hounding of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or the smack-down of Charles Murray on Middlebury’s campus.

We can’t forget, though, that conservative activists have also clamped down on progressive campus speech. Most recently, we see threats and attacks on John Eric Williams at Trinity (Connecticut) and Dana Cloud at Syracuse. Professor Williams had shared a provocative article about the recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. Cloud had called for more counter-protests against anti-Sharia protesters.

Sarah Bond twitter

…a different sort of thing.

They aren’t alone. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa was harassed after she pointed out that most classical statues weren’t originally white. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M was attacked for talking about the history of anti-white violence.

We could go on:

In each case, conservatives attacked progressives for using racist, threatening, or violent speech. In each case, activists conducted campaigns to publicize, demonize, and criminalize professors’ speech.

So, in some ways, we’ve come to the old school-yard standoff. Both sides insist on free speech for their own views and both sides use violence and intimidation to shut off speech by their opponents.

We can take it even further. Both sides seem untroubled by the actual content of their opponents’ speech. At Middlebury, for example, progressive protesters seemed unaware of Charles Murray’s actual topic. And in Iowa, conservative protesters did not bother to read Professor Bond’s argument about historical whiteness.

Does that mean that the two sides are roughly equal? I don’t think so.

I might be confused by my own sympathies, but to my mind the two sides are very different. On one hand, we have student protesters on campuses shouting down speakers they find dangerous. At Middlebury, it descended into thuggery and violence. On the other hand, we have conservative legislators and online commentators hoping to earn points by publicizing the things progressive professors say.

Time after time, we see the same political blocs lining up: Progressive protesters pull from student ranks and shout down conservative speakers. They make their campuses unwelcome zones for conservative pundits. Conservative protesters line up lawmakers and online networks to fire professors, charge them with crimes, and threaten their physical safety, wherever they might be.

Those aren’t the same.

The political power—yes, including the potential of vigilante violence—of conservatives seems far higher. In short, I would rather be Professor Weinstein facing an angry crowd of unreasonable students than Professor Williams walking alone at night. Anonymous threats online against progressive professors scare me. Student protesters at an announced speech don’t.

I understand I’m biased. I sympathize with my fellow progressive professors and our activist students. Not that I think we are always right or free of dangerous tendencies, but the worst-case scenario of left-wing student violence seems far less dangerous than its opposite number.

From the other side, I’m swayed and intimidated by the enormous political power of conservative educational activists, both legally and outside the law. As I wrote in my recent book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, the vigilante violence in school controversies has always been dominated by conservative activists. From the Ku Klux Klan to the American Legion to Kanawha County’s extremists, the use of political violence has been most often the tool of the right.

From that perspective, it seems to me to be unfair to lump all anti-free-speech protests together. Yes, both sides are prone to frightening excesses. And yes, both sides seem willing to defend free speech only when they agree with it. But that doesn’t make them the same.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  June 22, 2017

    The simple and obvious difference is that progressive students are using physical force to prevent conservatives from speaking, and the same isn’t being done to progressive speakers. You have a radical liberal like Bernie Sanders being invited to speak at Liberty and politely listened to, but the same courtesy is not extended to radical conservatives at predominantly progressive institutions.

    You’re trying to create an equivalence between the two sides by citing conservative calls for progressive academics to be punished or fired. But this is something that really is the same between the two sides: Conservatives are just as often threatened with punishment or termination for making offensive statements. That isn’t a one-way street. But the use of overwhelming physical force to silence disagreement is a predominantly progressive tactic.

    • Dan

       /  June 22, 2017

      “Radical liberal” Bernie Sanders is supporting what violence? The predominantly progressive tactic of violence and physical force is validated by what source? The horrible Berkeley reaction to Milo? The prevalence of Leftist militias? DOJ reports about lone wolf shooters who are feminists and “radical liberals?”

      Your reasoning is a textbook case of “slave morality,” and it doesn’t have the numbers to back it up. The reactionary right is a righteous victim the way Putin images Russia as a victim. Demonizing and scapegoating western secularism and liberalism as a militant decadence spreading like cancer is just the rhetoric of people with small man syndrome trying to get the nerve and numbers up to lash out in a pre-emptive and fictitious self-defense, to reclaim a mythical stolen patrimony.

  2. Dan

     /  June 22, 2017

    So what it comes down to is you are afraid of people whose exercise of political power puts your job and your life or physical well-being at risk. It’s not about the content of anyone’s ideas as well? I suspect it’s just an attempt at rhetorical “balance” that led you to agree with the National Review that Middlebury students exhibited “thuggery” and that outright anti-egalitarian racists count as “controversial conservative speakers and ideas.” Those ideas and speakers authorize and inflame the violent, insurrectionist tendencies on the right. At some point, if things get really bad, self-defense and the escalating nature of retaliatory conflict will lead to a situation where trying to decide who is more civil is absurd and impossible. Of course it’s the numerous whacko voices on the right who are calling for civil war or declaring one is already underway.

    When societies rot out this far (and this is just the beginning), you pick the side you can best survive under, or you get out and far from the fray. Neutrals and great souls who are above it all, or people who simply haven’t got the nerve to cope with real conflict had best exit the scene, because they do not last long in prison yard conditions. That is what the US is becoming politically, and on many other levels. If it makes you feel better to say your side’s hands are cleaner, okay, but that’s a child’s reasoning that comes from a place of fear about making a decision that’s an irrevocable commitment, that you put your will into fully, and you do this with full awareness and responsibility.

  3. Yes, I think both sides are prone to frightening excesses.

    We have free speech, but we don’t have protection from the natural or unintended consequences of speech. I don’t think people can say what they want and expect to not have consequences, particularly in these politically charged times. With rights we have responsibility. I think too often people on the right and left expect to exercise their rights without the responsibility and self-regulation that needs to accompany those rights.


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