Campus protests have been much in the news over the last week given the events at the University of California-Berkeley, where fires were set and windows broken in an ultimately successful attempt to shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart editor and provocateur.
While the Berkeley administration had declined to cancel the event beforehand, citing free speech concerns, it ultimately was forced to cancel the event when the situation became unsafe, a classic case of a heckler’s veto in action. While the vandalism seems to have been the work of a non-student group, an anarchist “black bloc” well known in the Bay Area, the event drew 1,500 students to peacefully protest the speech.
Some observers expect protests to continue around the country, especially in the wake of controversial actions taken by the new administration in the White House. Inside Higher Ed this week has an article on this topic, called “A New Era of Student Protest?” which predicts that “colleges and universities will undoubtedly face more student unrest,” and asks “How can educators leverage this historic opportunity and encourage constructive, inclusive political learning and participation?” The authors remind us that “Student protest is not a bad thing, unless it is accompanied by violence or seriously disrupts the educational process.” Indeed, protesting, even against disagreeable speech, is itself an example of free speech in action.
The article contains much advice, including the need to “Teach [students] the arts of discussion” and to not “let students go down some rabbit hole of alternative facts or myopic analysis.” It suggests that faculty and administrators encourage students to “weigh the pros and cons of different perspectives rather than dismissing them without consideration or, worse, denigrating the people who hold them.” While other suggestions in the article may raise academic freedom concerns, such as the idea that university and college presidents should make more public statements on political and policy questions, there is much here to consider as students across the country exercise their First Amendment right to assemble and speak their minds.