Quick Take: Free Speech on College Campuses

Political bias has long been pervasive on college campuses and has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Commonly seen in the exclusion and protest of speakers on campus, it has recently escalated into actual violence on a few occasions. At a recent event at Middlebury College, well known professor Charles Murray was the target of a vitriolic protest against his presence. After the protesters were able to successfully shout down the speaker, the event was moved to a separate room and live-streamed. When the event concluded, Murray and a few Middlebury staff were mobbed by the protesters on the way to their car, resulting in the injury of one of the school’s professors. While the behavior was widely condemned, though not universally, mainstream outlets often sought to justify the protesters by smearing the professor as a ‘white supremacist’ and downplaying the violence.

Schools have long understood the volatility of controversial speakers and a disquieting response to this behavior has been the imposition of increased security costs on the organizations hosting the speaker. On a certain level it makes sense, if a group’s event requires increased security, then they should pay for it. However, it is not the group’s event that causes the need for increased security, but the protests launched against it. This allows a sort of heckler’s veto for protesters by driving up the cost of hosting certain speakers.

Allow me to propose a very simple solution. Just as schools allow freedom of speech for event speakers, it should also allow the same for protesters, with the same requirements. This means registering the protest with the school, paying required fees for security and cleanup, and designating a reserved space for the protest. If group events cannot choose an auditorium at random and without approval, then why should protesters be allowed this privilege? This policy would create accountability for any escalation by either side and remove the ability for protesting groups to impose financial hardships on their opponents. Until schools treat both sides equally there is little reason to think that we’ve seen the last of the violence as blame can be readily shifted to ‘outside agitators.’

It is rather hypocritical that the biggest champions of ‘safe spaces’ are so tolerant of violating this idea when certain views are targeted. If schools wish to promote free speech and free inquiry, then it is essential that it hold accountable those who undermine them. Treating all speech on campus equally will go a long way in doing so.