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The mob vs. the First Amendment

VCU provides a blueprint for protecting campus speech


Virginia Commonwealth University Wikimedia Commons

The mob vs. the First Amendment
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Two recent pro-life events at Virginia Commonwealth University provide a cogent case study for colleges nationwide on how to protect free speech.

The first event, scheduled for March 29, was cancelled after scores of angry protesters shouted down the speaker, attacked student hosts, and occupied the lecture hall for two hours. The second, on April 26, involved the same speaker, the same student hosts, and a similar angry mob. Yet it ended very differently.

At the second event, the speaker, Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins, was able to deliver her pro-life message in a quiet space and engage in a long dialogue with persons holding opposing views. What explains the difference? The second time around, the university showed its intent to remove disruptors and hold them accountable. It was that simple.

No police were posted at the first event. When protesters began loudly shouting, there was no chance they would be stopped, so they escalated to threats and assaults. The campus police responded to a call for help but then took no action to remove disruptors. So the mob kept shouting, threatening, and attacking—causing multiple physical injuries, until the police finally took the speaker and student hosts to a separate room. The event was cancelled, the mob won, and VCU received scorn for its failure to protect free speech.

At the second event, VCU chose a different, more resolute approach. Numerous police officers guarded the lecture hall. Signs warned that attempts to cancel the event would not be tolerated. A tape line demarcated a safe space reserved for the speaker. And a school official announced the non-disruption policy would be enforced. Although the angry mob again tried to disrupt the event, the police took quick action, warning that disruptors would be arrested—and ultimately arrested four of them. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the next day, “After the four students were arrested, the other protesters left the room, and the event continued.”

When a school shows it won’t take action to protect free speech, any mob intent on cancelling an event will make every effort to do so, including resorts to violence.

Contrast VCU’s resolute approach with what has happened elsewhere. Students shouted down U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan during his speech at Stanford Law School, but no one was removed, and the speech was cut short. Former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines was assaulted while speaking at San Francisco State University, leading the school to revoke approval for a later event featuring a different speaker. A mob at SUNY Albany stormed an event featuring speaker Ian Haworth, chanting and dancing in a conga line, leading the school to move the event to another room while permitting the mob to continue its disruptive behavior. And a mob at the University of Pittsburgh—incited by university officials themselves—prematurely shut down an event featuring conservative speakers Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo. To make matters worse, the school then billed the two student groups that sponsored the event more than $18,000 for security needed there.

This isn’t rocket science. When consequences are clear, behavior changes. When a school shows it won’t take action to protect free speech, any mob intent on cancelling an event will make every effort to do so, including resorts to violence. They have nothing to lose.

But when a school shows it stands ready to hold disruptors accountable, the calculus changes. For many protestors, the event is not worth a criminal conviction or student discipline, especially if the event is sure to continue anyway. In this instance, it took just a few arrests for VCU to quiet the mob. Once quieted, the mob left, figuring they had better things to do.

As Christians, we are commanded to take a different path when voicing our concerns in the public square. Of the multiple references to “mobs” in the Bible, one will not find a positive reference. When our public institutions not only allow mobs, but sometimes even get behind them, they are doing precisely the opposite of what they should be doing. Universities have been known historically as places for reasoned debate and for teaching students about the value of peaceful interactions with others regarding varied viewpoints and differences of opinion. When that atmosphere disintegrates, only the peaceful suffer. That’s when God’s call on government authorities to enforce the rules and preserve the peace (Romans 13:1-14) is appropriate.

VCU provided a great example of how to properly handle a mob—and, in so doing, it also provided a valuable blueprint for other colleges and universities to follow.


Christiana Kiefer

Christiana Kiefer is senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom.


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