Saturday, May 13, 2017

Free Speech on Campus: ¡Interruption, Yes! ¡Disruption, No!

Writing for the Associated Press, on 11 May 2017, Collin Binkley noted that "First Amendment Backers See Free Speech Fading At Colleges" and looked in some depth at student attitudes.

         In campus clashes from California to Vermont, many defenders of the First Amendment say they see signs that free speech, once a bedrock value in academia, is losing ground as a priority at U.S. colleges.           As protests have derailed speeches by controversial figures, including an event with Ann Coulter last month at the University of California, Berkeley, some fear students have come to see the right to free expression less as an enshrined measure of protection for all voices and more as a political weapon used against them by provocateurs.

         What I can bring to this discussion is the experience of a law-abiding and moderate graduate student activist in "the long 1960s" followed by service as a faculty member in the 1970's onward, specifically service on the Miami University Student Affairs Council as we recommended to The President and Trustees of the Miami University — the University as "a body corporate and politic" in Ohio — rules regarding free speech and disruption.

         Student Affairs Council (SAC) did not deal directly with student attitudes, and if someone had brought up attitudes I might've quoted, "Laws are the great schoolmaster of the commonwealth" — from Francis Bacon or someone like that — and noted that in this instance SAC was supposed to recommend rules governing, first, on-campus behavior and second, behavior by people on campus: students, faculty, staff, and/or visitors.

         Miami University is a public institution and respect for First Amendment free-speech rights were — in theory — part of relevant Ohio law and implicit in our mandate for rules, so we tried to respect the free speech of teachers, speakers, protesters, and what some of us (well, I, anyway) somewhat flippantly thought of as "civilians." And we came up with a fairly simple rule asking that SAC work on the principle of a right to interrupt but prohibition of disruption.

         Teachers were not paid enough and were on campus enough that they shouldn't have to take much shit from their students and none from visitors to their classrooms. But we weren't back in the days of young Hitlerites intimidating professors, and the practical issue was with big-name guest speakers. And big-name guest speakers, especially when well compensated, were professionals, and professional speakers should be competent to deal with hecklers. Indeed, it's part of the gig, and for a long time part of the entertainment value of public speeches, at least of the political variety. And a quick debate could be more educational than the one-way communication of a speech.

         So, no, a guest speaker could not call in the cops to haul out someone who interrupted. And we wrote the rule generally enough that neither could anyone else, even if this meant — and I raised such examples explicitly — that a traditional Christian wedding ceremony in the campus chapel could be interrupted by a radical feminist objecting to "obey" in a woman's vows, and an Orthodox or Conservative service in the campus chapel the afternoon of Yom Kippur could be interrupted by gay students objecting to reading the prohibition of male homosexuality in the Book of Leviticus.

         Interrupted, not disrupted.

         A "group heckle" is not heckling but disrupting, and failing to sit down and shut up after objecting to wifely obedience or prohibitions of homosexual behavior is also disrupting. And disruption was and usually should be illegal.

         We retained the old formulation that the teachers or the sponsors of events should retain their cool and warn people when interrupting was moving into disruption. But if the interruption became disruption, or disruption was the point all along, then we recommended authorizing calling in the cops and the armed power of the State.

         And this was in Ohio, down the road a piece (252 miles) from Kent State University and not long after the 4 May 1970 shootings at KSU. And if anyone had ever asked me — and they didn't — I could tell anti-War stories of Michigan and Balbo in Chicago in the summer of 1968, and the University of Illinois campus and how the two times I was most seriously threatened with serious injury it was by police with clubs.

         (Of course, a big part of the reason I was only seriously threatened twice in my life is because of the strong State with a lot of cops [a "Leviathan"], but that's another essay.)

         So we knew that every law and rule is, ultimately, backed up by force — including our rules on the size of pet fish in dorms — and some of us knew very well that even legal force can get nasty.

         Protesters had the right to interrupt; speakers and their audiences had the right to speak and hear … after a bit.

         I'm sure by now the Miami U Office of Legal Counsel has grown to significant size and rules are written by small teams of lawyers — especially sensitive rules such as those regarding guest speakers. But I like the rule we wrote and recommend our principle: Interruption, sure, especially of over-paid, over-pampered political trolls; disruption, hell no.

         Student attitudes can be worked on later, starting with teaching the simple fact that when speech is restricted, minorities with unpopular views are the first groups to get shut up — and Leftist, radical, unorthodox views are usually unpopular. Then "da older guys," and gals, can tell the young hotheads about the word "provocateur" and the tactic by Establishments through history of provocation to get reaction — and the use of reaction to get activists in jails or hospitals or morgues and the Establishment more firmly in power.

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