Earlier this month, students at the University of Oregon blocked its president from speaking. The reason? He supported free speech on campus — a position which, they asserted, engendered “fascism and white supremacy.” Thus do these historical illiterates combine ignorance with unintended irony — in some of history’s darkest chapters, fascists jailed, imprisoned, and killed others for protesting fascism.
Sadly, colleges themselves have planted the seeds of such intolerance. In recent years, campuses have sheltered students from subjectively offensive speech or reading materials. Some create “safe spaces” for homogenous beliefs; others issue “trigger warnings” about books purported to evoke sexism or bigotry. Instead of teaching students to debate differences and confront the objectionable, they offer cocoons sheltering them from discomfort or even thought.
To our detriment, they create Americans at once timorous and authoritarian. Martin Luther King did not seek out safe spaces; the trigger warnings he braved, so tragically, did not involve speech. Much of his greatness lay in confronting danger, transcending hurt — and offending the sensibilities of racist whites.
For King and the civil rights movement, freedom of speech was oxygen. But an appalling number of college students consider it disposable. A recent Brookings survey found that a majority support quelling a speaker with whom they disagree; a plurality believe the First Amendment does not protect hate speech, however defined; and 20 percent support using physical force against a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.” One doubts that these intellectual fledglings know that their sentiments were shared by King’s jailer, Bull Connor.
Armored in rigid righteousness, they have deprived speakers across the ideological spectrum of their right to speak, and fellow students of the right to hear them. Most notorious was the violence directed against Charles Murray at Middlebury College. But the roster includes Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Larry Summers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Michael Moore, and many others — deemed as disagreeable to a subset of self-appointed arbiters as Connor once deemed King.
The casualties include an appreciation of history. Today’s left-wing authoritarians forget that Ronald Reagan rose by opposing free speech for campus radicals; their right-wing opposites forget that such radicals often castigated free speech as a cover for conservative oppression.
Inevitably they share a common myopia. Campus conservatives feel stifled by a prevailing liberal ethos; progressives by an embedded white culture blind to the experience of others. That there is truth in both viewpoints argues that both should be openly expressed and debated — not simply out of equity, but for the edification of all.
Instead, too often, the most ardent contestants seek to stifle the other. Oblivious to the lessons of the past, they insist that freedom of speech adheres only to those who share their ideology or identity — and that advocates of speech for all partake of the moral equivalency evinced by President Trump’s casually reprehensible comments after the violence in Charlottesville left one dead and more than 30 injured.
Rightly, coverage of white supremacists in Charlottesville noted their repellent appropriation of an artifact borne by the Ku Klux Klan — torches. Few recalled that in 1933 Nazi students carried torches into the courtyard of the University of Berlin, where they burned books which contravened their odious worldview. Or that communists and other leftists deployed violence to silence others throughout Europe in the 1930s.
These examples should give the thoughtful pause. But a timeless feature of instinctive authoritarians is indifference to reason or balance — or to the rights of others. All that matters is the self-proclaimed rightness of their purpose.
A seminal protest over Vietnam exemplifies the heedlessness of ideological rapture. In 1970, students decrying America’s incursion into Cambodia burned down the ROTC building at Kent State. Days later, ill-trained National Guardsmen shot and killed four protesters. Swiftly, anti-war strikers shut down over 400 campuses across America. In this symbiotic anger, several hundred thousand students — many struggling financially — were deprived of the most basic academic freedom: their right to attend class.
Which now evokes the anti-fascist movement known as antifa. At Berkeley in late August, antifa activists attacked peaceful conservative protesters. Their explicit purpose is to deny freedom of speech and assembly to those who meet their expansive definition of “fascist” – including campus Republicans.
Their war on speech is not confined to college campuses. For antifa, the First Amendment is inimical anywhere; their right to define offensive views unlimited. Without compunction, antifa spokesman Mark Bray asserts: “Historically, fascists and fascistic ideas have thrived in open debate,” adding that “our goal should be that in 20 years those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that fact in public.” Or simply too frightened.
Antifa would trample free expression beneath the dangerously intoxicating romance of absolutism. The constitutional indulgences they deplore also included allowing the local GOP to join in Portland’s Rose Parade. Warning “Trump supporters” and other devotees of “hateful rhetoric,” antifa routed them by threatening violence.
In truth, nothing separates the tactics of antifa from history’s fascists save who they hate. Morally, they exemplify the only grounds, however tendentious, on which Trump can claim superiority: his lip service to the freedoms they so openly despise.
Whether the attack on freedom of speech and assembly comes from extremists of the left or right, Senator Ben Sasse understands the stakes: “The First Amendment is the beating heart of the American experiment.” To remake America in their dark image, the forces of suppression must first cut out its heart.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.