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Saving free speech on campus

Daniel R. Suhr | Believe it or not, respectful, thoughtful, engaged students still exist

Students on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn. iStock.com/f11photo

Saving free speech on campus
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Fifty years ago, the radicals on campus burned bras and American flags. Today, they wear polo shirts and dare to host Ben Shapiro for a lecture. The left-wing takeover of America’s universities is nothing new. It has been thus for decades. But the old left on campus was the kinder, gentler left of the WASP establishment or the civil libertarian ACLU. Today’s campus is enthralled by the woke left, which will brook no challenge or alternative. But a resilient corps of young conservatives keep the flame alive despite the crowd.

My WORLD Opinions colleague Kristen Waggoner encountered the woke the hard way, at no less a venue than Yale Law School. She was invited to address a benign topic: when a court case to vindicate constitutional rights becomes moot due to subsequent events. It is a topic on which she is an expert—she argued the case that is now the leading precedent on the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. And it was not a one-sided seminar but a debate with an opposing counsel moderated by a left-leaning Yale Law professor.

Yet, the woke would not let this debate go forward. Waggoner had to be canceled because she works for Alliance Defending Freedom, which in other cases has defended the claim that the U.S. Constitution does not include a right to same-sex marriage. To merely allow her on campus was so triggering and so emotionally violent that it had to be stopped.

And so she was interrupted, harangued, attacked, disparaged, and otherwise disrupted as the moderator reminded the students of Yale’s free speech policy. That policy protects the right of students to protest, but it also protects the right of willing participants to invite and hear from speakers, as conservative students often do through groups like the Federalist Society or Young America’s Foundation.

A similar story unfolded recently at another top law school. Ilya Shapiro, recently hired onto the faculty at the Georgetown University Law Center, was shouted down during a visit to the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Shapiro had posted on Twitter that President Joe Biden should not select a less qualified Supreme Court nominee based simply on her race and gender. Shapiro acknowledged it was phrased inartfully and apologized, but the woke mob insisted on their pound of flesh.

For the woke, cancellation to prevent verbal violence is the priority, not listening or learning or a robust marketplace of ideas.

And readers will recall the attempt to disinvite former Vice President Mike Pence from the University of Virginia because his mere presence was “violence” against some students.

These instances, and others like them, all undermine a core ideal of most universities: the free and open debate over ideas. Our free society only works when we listen to each other. We need more debates between respectful, capable advocates, not fewer. And we need universities that model that behavior for their students by hosting more such events in the future. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, writing an opinion for eight justices last summer, put his thumb on the point: Our schools are “the nurseries of democracy.” They have a responsibility to promote the “protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need of protection.” He added, “Schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

Commitment to that principle is sadly in short supply among young people today. For the woke, cancellation to prevent verbal violence is the priority, not listening or learning or a robust marketplace of ideas. Thus Waggoner or Shapiro or Pence, who were not even speaking on the subject found to be offensive, had to be stopped.

But we should not lose sight of the encouraging aspects of these stories. A left-leaning Yale professor chose to moderate Waggoner’s event, knowing it would be controversial, because she believed that the discussion was worthwhile. The Pence event happened at UVa without a hitch.

And I can tell you from personal experience that there are pinpoints of hope on campus. I spoke at Yale Law School a few months ago and am surprised to report I did not draw any protestors. At the invitation of Federalist Society students, I visited New Haven, Conn., to offer conservative solutions to the opioid epidemic, followed by thoughtful commentary by a former federal prosecutor who teaches a seminar on drug policy. The students were exactly what you would want at such an event: interested and intelligent. They did not all agree with me, but we had a good dialogue and learned from one another. It is these students—respectful, thoughtful, engaged—who give me hope for the future.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr serves as managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center. His clients include victims of cancel culture, parents seeking educational alternatives for their children, and citizens speaking up in the public square. Before joining LJC, he served as a senior adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon, an Eagle Scout, and a fair-weather runner. He’s married to Anna and loves building Legos and watching Star Wars with their young sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.


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