When childish law students protest against speech with impunity, we all lose

When childish law students protest against speech with impunity, we all lose
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Is “politically correct” left-wing intolerance on college campuses a serious threat to freedom of speech, or a non-issue pushed by the right?

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on this issue in recent months. Now, the latest skirmish over campus speech, at the City University of New York School of Law, provides a strong rebuttal to those who insist that it’s a made-up problem. When a speaker with an unpopular opinion has to be advised about his physical safety — and then to confront repeated attempts to shout him down — the problem is very real. It’s even worse when such abusive tactics are condoned by university leadership.

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Late last month, a few dozen protesters at CUNY law school repeatedly disrupted a talk by Josh Blackman, a South Texas College of Law professor invited by the conservative/libertarian Federalist Society. (In an ironic twist, the subject was the importance of free speech on college campuses.) Last week, CUNY announced that the disruptive students would not face sanctions — a bad decision that can only further damage public discourse and enable bullies left and right.

I have been a paid speaker at past Federalist Society events. I also have an unpaid affiliation with the Cato Institute, where Blackman is an adjunct scholar. Still, Blackman’s blog account of the protest makes for a stunning read.

The protest, led by the CUNY chapter of the radical-left National Lawyers’ Guild, was apparently driven by several things. For one, the activist students assumed that a free speech-themed event by a conservative group was a vehicle for far-right provocateurs. Worse, Blackman was branded a racist oppressor because he had defended the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which offers protections to immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. (Blackman supports the policy itself but believes that, constitutionally, it requires congressional action and not executive fiat.)

Blackman writes that when he arrived on campus, CUNY’s chief of public safety warned him that the protesters were already waiting outside the room where he was scheduled to speak.  More disturbingly, the chief asked Blackman if he had an “exit plan” and advised him on safe ways to leave the building.

The protesters hurled abuse at Blackman as he entered the auditorium and tried to block his way, then followed him inside. When he began to speak, they booed loudly and shouted him down, responding to his requests to let him continue with a mocking “Nah.” They also berated an African-American student who had come to hear Blackman instead of joining the protest.

Eventually, an administrator came in to warn that if the disruption continued, measures would be taken to “resolve it.” A few minutes later, when it became clear that Blackman was determined to go on, the protesters grudgingly left. Blackman notes that after that, the audience gradually grew from five to about 30; some students, he says, admitted they had been too intimidated to come earlier.

Now, CUNY School of Law has sided with the protesters. "This non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech, and it did not violate any university policy,” law school dean Mary Lu Bilek told the website Inside Higher Ed. She stressed that the heckling went on for only eight minutes and that the event proceeded without interference for an hour after that.

Yet George Mason University law professor David E. Bernstein has convincingly argued on the Volokh Conspiracy blog that the protesters were in clear violation of campus policy. The school’s student handbook states that one may not “intentionally obstruct and/or forcibly prevent others from the exercise of their rights” and that students, faculty, and invited guests have the right to express opinions “without having to fear abuse — physical, verbal or otherwise.” Indeed, the campus-wide email sent out before Blackman’s appearance had stressed that while protests were welcome, disruptions were not permitted.

Moreover, there is no doubt that the protesters fully intended to shut Blackman down and were deterred only by a thinly veiled threat of punishment (which Blackman says they explicitly discussed after the CUNY official left the room).

In his article for the New York Daily News, Blackman also takes issue with Dean Bilek’s assertion that he was able to proceed normally with his talk once the disruption was over. Aside from the fact that the heckling made him decide to abandon his planned lecture and have a question-and-answer session instead, he was constantly worried that the angry mob would return. Blackman points out, as well, that someone less persistent might well have given up and left — as the protesters clearly wanted him to do.

According to Dean Bilek, “CUNY Law students are encouraged to develop their own perspectives on the law” as future lawyers “promoting the values of fairness, justice, and equality.” Those values, it seems, do not include free speech or open debate: the protesters excoriated CUNY for giving Blackman a platform and held up such signs as “The First Amendment is a weak shield for white supremacy.” And those perspectives, it seems, include “F--k the law” — as one protester shouted.

Future lawyers, one would think, should be able to engage and argue against ideas they find objectionable. Instead, the CUNY protesters responded to Blackman with insults and canned slogans, such as a sign that read, “No racism, no xenophobia, no transphobia, no ableism, no ageism. Go home Josh Blackman.” (Even if one were to interpret Blackman’s views on DACA as racist or xenophobic, it’s unclear what he has to do with transphobia, ableism or ageism.)

When Blackman told the students that he supported congressional legislation to give protections to current DACA recipients, one protester shouted, “Gaslighting!” — a term for abusive manipulation intended to confuse the victim.

The problem is not just that “politically correct” bullies threaten free exchange of ideas in our schools, or that future legal professionals hold disturbingly authoritarian ideas about speech. The repulsive behavior of CUNY’s “social justice warriors,” and their impunity, also confirm the right’s worst prejudices about both universities and progressives. This empowers right-wing bullies who claim that only confrontation and boorishness can counter the left-wing mob.

It’s the rest of us who lose.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a columnist for Newsday. Follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.