I don’t envy university administrators the hard job of responding to student protests. But it’s not hard to understand that the job requires a clear view of what sets universities apart. Universities are supposed to be havens for rational inquiry into ideas, however unorthodox they may be. That is why they are uncommonly open to protesters, who often try to convey neglected ideas, and also why their rules are designed so that protests will, as much as possible, catalyze fresh thinking instead of hindering it. But sometimes administrators, either because they don’t understand universities or because they panic, neglect those rules and thereby do harm.
Late in March, Josh Blackman attempted to discuss freedom of speech at the City University of New York School of Law. Protesters, who had persuaded themselves that Blackman is a white supremacist, derailed his talk. Blackman, an associate professor of law at the South Texas College School of Law, is a mainstream legal conservative.
He had initially been invited, by students in CUNY Law’s Federalist Society, to participate in a “panel discussion about theories of constitutional interpretation.” But the students couldn’t find any other professors to participate. Blackman suggested an “event about free speech on campus.” The students, again, found no one to join him. At CUNY Law, which doesn’t hide its progressive commitments, you evidently can’t find anyone to share a stage with someone like Blackman.
Blackman’s talk attracted five listeners and around 30 protesters. After the protesters dispersed, his audience swelled to around 30. Students, Blackman was told, were “ashamed or intimidated” by the protests. At CUNY School of Law, evidently, at least some students who want to hear a legal conservative speak are made to feel ashamed and intimidated. If you think these students are just snowflakes, watch the video.
Prior to the event, Dean Mary Lu Bilek sent an email to all students reminding them of the law school’s commitment to “the expression of all points of view, including the freedom to disagree with the viewpoints of others.” To make it clear that this freedom to disagree did not extend to shouting down one’s opponents, she attached a copy of CUNY’s policy, which prohibits “shouting down or otherwise preventing a speaker from delivering remarks.” Another university official warned protesters, as they began to disrupt Blackman’s talk, that the “university rules are [that] people get to speak . . . . [Y]ou may not keep anyone from speaking” After that official inexplicably left, the protesters continued to heckle Blackman for about eight minutes. When Blackman, in the midst of a back and forth with the protesters, mentioned the law, one of the future lawyers replied “F*ck the law!”
Eventually, the protesters left. Blackman gave a presentation, but not the one he had planned.
In short, students were repeatedly warned not to try to shout Blackman down. They did so anyway, in a way that showed their contempt for the dean, the free exchange of ideas, and, yes, the law. They richly deserve whatever punishment CUNY levies.
Except, CUNY will levy no penalty. Dean Bilek says that the disruption, which involved shouting over Blackman, “was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech” that “did not violate any university policy.”
So as long as a disruption is no more than eight—or ten?—or 30?—minutes, it’s not a violation. And as long as the speaker can somehow continue, on some topic, somewhere—in the original room, in another room, in a nearby park?—it’s not a violation.
An administrator need not enforce every policy rigorously. But when one sets out to defend a policy essential to the university’s core activity—inquiring into and exchanging ideas—and then fails utterly to enforce that policy in the face of contempt for it, one sends a message: “We care more about avoiding conflict with our students than we do about being a real university.”
Meanwhile, at Duke University, students recently protested a speech that President Vincent Price was giving to alumni. They rushed the stage and, for 15 minutes, shouted demands through a bullhorn, while administrators “conferred.” Eventually, the students left of their own accord. The university considered punishing the students and informed protesters of “an inquiry” that might lead to “university disciplinary action.” The students had been warned prior to the event, after all, that disrupting it would violate university policy. But the students had other ideas. As one of the protest’s organizers put it, even the hint of a disciplinary process was “exacerbating any preexisting mental health conditions” and perhaps “traumatizing and starting new ones.” Moreover, administrations have in the past punished protesters we now think of as in the right, so protesters should never be disciplined, unless they are on the wrong side of history. Or something.
Still, some of Duke’s undergraduates have barely left their parents’ houses. We should reserve our contempt for Duke’s administrators, who have, of course, decided that no one will be disciplined. A presidential speech to alumni is not central to Duke’s mission in the way Josh Blackman’s talk was to CUNY’s. Nonetheless, the students have learned that Duke’s administrators are easily routed.
Apparently, their students scare them.