SUNY & CUNY prof and students need a course on free speech

POLITICS: SUNY & CUNY prof and students need a course on free speech

College students, faculty and administrators clearly need urgent remedial instruction in freedom of speech and First Amendment values.

Free-speech advocates were justifiably appalled by this month’s shocking episode at Hunter College, where a professor unleashed a profanity-laden public attack on a group of pro-life students.

Their offense? They dared to exercise their free-speech rights by setting up an information table with pro-life literature in a CUNY building.

Then, astoundingly, the professor turned her aggression on the press, reportedly holding a machete to the neck of a reporter who attempted to question her about the incident.

Put aside any notion that the professor failed her special obligation as a faculty member to protect the free-speech rights of all members of the college community.

The problem’s more troubling: She evidently lacked any awareness that the pro-life students possessed any rights at all.

What mattered to her was her supposed right to silence those whose opinions she finds abhorrent and “triggering” — the precise opposite of free speech.  

Clearly, the professor lacked any appreciation of the basic constitutional ground rules. 

Rodriguez lashed out at a group of pro-life students on campus.
Twitter / @StudentsforLife

The Hunter College incident isn’t an outlier. Recall when Stanford Law School students, abetted by a university administrator, raucously silenced a sitting federal judge because they strenuously disagreed with his judicial views.

Or when a mob at San Francisco State University reportedly assaulted a speaker because of her views on transgender participation in college athletics.

Students at SUNY Albany reportedly used the same thuggish tactics on another speaker whose topic, ironically, was “free speech on campus.”

The arrogance of these self-appointed censors is staggering. And their actions point to a worrisome deficit in the education of both students and faculty in our system of higher education. 

We can’t survive as a free society when there’s an intellectual reign of terror stifling dissent at our universities.

Either the SUNY and CUNY Boards of Trustees or the state Legislature should mandate a course — for staff as well as students — in the essential importance of respecting freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

The first lesson: Your social-justice views do not override the free-speech rights of others.

And your right to speak doesn’t include a right to prevent others from speaking or to silence people who hold contrary views.

The course should disabuse students and faculty of the fundamental misconception that the First Amendment confers a right to disrupt events sponsored by others.

Stanford Law School students shouted down a federal judge during a speech on campus earlier this year.
Stanford Law School students shouted down a federal judge during a speech on campus earlier this year.
Vimeo / Ethics and Public Policy Center

There is no right to a heckler’s veto, even if you believe you are completely in the right.

Second: It’s easier to mindlessly drown out opposing views than to engage in reasoned debate. It’s also malicious, lazy and infantile.

Make your points with passion and conviction but also rationally, with logic and evidence. People may learn something from you, and you from them.

This is called the free exchange of ideas. It’s how society benefits from freedom of expression. 

Third: There’s no exception to the First Amendment for conservative social views or traditional moral or religious values, even if these beliefs are unfashionable.

Freedom of speech cannot be selectively applied or it will eventually disappear.

If you deny free speech and freedom of conscience to others, you’re putting your own freedom in mortal danger: Your views may not always be popular.

Remember: If free speech doesn’t protect everyone, it will eventually protect no one.

Fourth: Respect the free-speech rights of others even when you really, really hate what they’re saying and when their message makes you very upset.

Neither you, nor university administrators nor the government has the right or duty to shut down speech to protect your feelings.

Fifth: Your right to speak does not and never will include a right to express yourself through violence to persons and property.

Rodriguez chased The Post reporter and photographer outside after they came to interview her.
Rodriguez chased The Post reporter and photographer outside after they came to interview her.
Robert Miller

Your right to be “hostile” to an opinion never justifies being physically hostile to the person expressing the opinion. Otherwise, the floodgates of anarchy will be thrown wide open.

Finally: The job of faculty members and administrators is not to act as censors of unpopular opinions.

Rather, they have a special obligation to set an example of mature tolerance of other peoples’ right to hold contrary opinions — to promote civil discourse, rigorous and rational debate. 

I’m not proposing indoctrination; freedom of speech and diversity of opinion is the antidote to indoctrination. 

But no one can reasonably deny students badly need remedial education in the basic values embodied in the First Amendment.

Such a course would help show that academia’s professed devotion to the unfettered exchange of ideas is not mere lip service.

Peter J. Clines, a Democrat, is an attorney with decades of experience in public service and private practice.

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