College Protesters Are Not a Threat to Free Speech

College students protesting against offensive speech and behavior and buildings and schools named after racists and slaveholders have been accused of rampant political correctness and trying to censor opposition. In its September 2015 issue The Atlantic magazine declared, "Today's college students can't seem to take a joke," forcing comedians who want to perform on campuses to alter their routines. A recent article in New York magazine accused student protesters at the University of Missouri, UCLA, Wesleyan, Columbia, and Yale of "left-wing hostility to freedom of expression." Bill Maher on his HBO talk show demanded to know "Who raised these little monsters?!"

Campus campaigns against offensive speech and symbols are not just limited to the United States. At Oxford University in England and in South Africa students want statues honoring Cecil Rhodes, who championed British imperialism in Africa, removed from campus or public display.

President Obama recently entered the fray with an interview on National Public Radio. Speaking with Steve Inskeep, host of Morning Edition, Obama hedged his bets. He said "I think it's a healthy thing for young people to be engaged, and to question authority," but "I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right." Obama specifically complained, "There have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don't like what they stand for. Well, feel free to disagree with somebody, but don't try to just shut them up." He also called for dialogue with people who do not "believe in affirmative action" because "it is possible for somebody not to be racist and want a just society but believe that that is something that is inconsistent with the Constitution."

Well Mr. President, I promise I won't try to shut you up, or Condoleezza Rice, or Christine Lagarde of the IMF, although I do not believe I really could if I wanted to. But I agree with the student protesters. Yes, in the course of action they may go a little too far, but their actions are what open up, not close down debate. Without their protests the issues they raised have been ignored.

Condoleezza Rice has ever right to speak, but not the right to be a college commencement speaker without protest. Rice has never publicly answered for her support for policies during the Bush administration that have contributed to chaos in the Middle East and the death of thousands of American soldiers. In fact she defended Bush military lies, disasters, and incompetence, and excused his ignorance by praising his "instincts." Rice, who is represented as a speaker by All American Speakers and Washington Speakers Bureau, trades on her Bush era celebrity and was paid $150,000 in April 2014 to speak at the University of Minnesota. She also frequently appears on television, according to the website IMDb, 69 times (not counting repeats). Before Condi gets my invite, she has an obligation to publicly be questioned about what she did and why she did it during the Bush years. I would also like to see her sharply cut her price. Meanwhile Lagarde is facing prosecution in her own country, France, for financial chicanery. She certainly has the right to speak, and I hope she does, at her trial.

I support Affirmative Action and I do not believe that everyone who raises questions about it is a racist - although many are. But segregation is racist, stop-and-frisk is racist, trying to block poor and minority people from voting is racist, and denying educational opportunity to poor and minority youth is racist. Identifying policies like these as racist, showing their connection with opposition to affirmative action, pressing people who hold these ideas to justify their positions, and limiting their ability to oppress others, expands civil rights and does not threaten anyone's freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech, which I highly value, is not absolute in the United States or in other democratic countries. According to the United States Supreme Court, it is unlawful to advocate for the use of force in a volatile situation where speech leads directly to action or make threats to harm someone. Knowingly making false statements, blatant and exploitative obscenity, and child pornography are also not protected speech. Hate speech in various forms is outlawed in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

I have never been invited to be a college commencement speaker, because of my ideas, and also because I will not bring in donor dollars. In this country money drives access. By the way, if a college is interested, I charge much less than Condoleezza Rice.

Unlike President Obama, I welcome student demands for political sensitivity. Student groups may go too far in some of these demands, but it is their demands that open up discussion. As long as the rich and powerful control the media, billionaires give endless dollars to rightwing Republican party candidates, and as long as the Internet is open to ever rightwing crackpot idea, I do not think we have to worry that leftist students will somehow undermine freedom of speech in the United States.