Testifying before Congress on Dec. 5, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania presented themselves as Ivy League guardians of the First Amendment.
Their testimony provoked bipartisan congressional outrage. Harvard, MIT, Penn, and other universities had offered little more than institutional shrugs as pro-Hamas, anti-Israel protests explicitly threatened violence against Jewish students after Hamas’s savage Oct. 7 attacks against Israeli civilians, and the administrators explained this by stating that they were simply protecting the free speech rights of student demonstrators.
In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” as the pigs consolidate power, they justify its arbitrary use against other, lesser animals by amending the commandment that “all animals are equal” to state, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” So it is now at many universities, where certain speech — even particularly toxic and threatening speech — is freer and given more protection than other speech.
Just days ago, Harvard reportedly continued its long practiced directive to its Chabad chapter to remove nightly the menorah displayed on campus during Hanukkah to avoid provoking criminal mischief by vandals.
Harvard’s “hide the menorah” policy exposed the hollowness of President Claudine Gay’s recent testimony that “antisemitic speech, when it crosses [into] conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action.” But the action Harvard takes was to direct the removal of the menorah, placed there by peaceful Jewish students, rather than to prevent possible damage to it by malevolent vandals.
It is noteworthy that the continuation of this policy occurred after Gay’s disgraceful congressional testimony — testimony for which she later apologized. Had her apology been genuine, Gay could have easily ordered Harvard’s campus police to increase its nighttime patrols near the Widener Library where the menorah had been placed.
Harvard’s menorah directives to its Chabad chapter are instructive, as many universities now frequently suppress the rights of certain students by preemptively claiming the speech is “provocative” and could lead to violence.
Bolstering the “heckler’s veto,” universities now inexplicably facilitate and enforce the speech suppression efforts by virtual and actual student mobs against disfavored speech on campus.
An incident at Binghamton University, investigated by the U.S. Department of Education, illustrates how the heckler’s veto works. On Nov. 18, 2019, renowned economist Dr. Arthur Laffer was to give a speech on campus, sponsored by the College Republicans. An economic advisor to Ronald Reagan, Laffer had twice endorsed Bill Clinton before eventually supporting Donald Trump in 2016. To the enraged students who probably knew little about Laffer’s economic views or past political involvements, facts were unimportant.
Social media posts called upon students to disrupt Laffer’s speech, noting “there’s not that many [College Republicans] but f— em up anyways” and “[j]oin us at 2 as we disrupt this disgusting space [lecture hall] that Binghamton has allowed students to create and protect the racism, homophobia, and xenophobia that has erupted from Trump and his supporters.”
Free speech took a back seat to angry student mobs when university police ordered Laffer’s private security guards to remove him from campus just as he stepped to the lectern. Blaming the “provocative” atmosphere on College Republicans, Binghamton enforced the “heckler’s veto” against Laffer and the College Republicans despite its written promises to students that the “full exercise of First Amendment rights is encouraged and protected” and that all dissent must occur “in an orderly and peaceful manner.” At Binghamton, intimidation carried the day. The hecklers won.
At Fordham University in June 2020, a Chinese American student was investigated by university officials for “provocative” content the student had posted on his (non-university affiliated) Instagram account. On the 31st anniversary of China’s massacre of thousands of student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, the student, whose family had fled with him from China, posted a picture of himself with a firearm (pointed at the ground) in the backyard of his parents’ home. The caption read “Don’t Tread on Me” and the student had written that “freedom comes from a strong and armed populace” and that “violence against any citizen should not be tolerated.” A vocal supporter of the 2020 BLM movement, the student also lamented the “hypocrisy” of protestors who failed to respond to the brutal slaying of 77-year old retired St. Louis Police Captain David Dorn by rioters following the murder of George Floyd.
Fordham, whose extensive ties to the Chinese regime were investigated by the Education Department, said it received “multiple student complaints” about the Instagram posts and dispatched uniformed police to his parents’ home to question him. Fordham opened a formal investigation into the student’s social media posts “related to the current racial issues in the country and political issues in China.”
Even though its investigators quickly determined that the student posed no threat to himself or others, Fordham placed him on disciplinary probation, banned him from campus, ordered him to undergo bias training, and forced him to submit a letter of apology to the Dean of Students. It remains unclear whether Chinese Communist Party influence operations on the Fordham campus prompted Fordham’s outrageous hounding of this student.
Fordham completely disregarded its written promise that students and faculty have a “right to freely express their positions…whether they assent to or dissent from existing situations in the University or society” and that at Fordham, “the expression of controversial ideas and differing views is a vital part of University discourse.” Instead, the virtual hecklers won.
Many of our universities have already become Orwellian “Animal Farms,” in violation of their explicit promises to students, faculty, and the American public that funds them. To correct course and restore confidence, the actions of our universities must begin to match their promises to evenhandedly protect the free and peaceful exchange of differing ideas and viewpoints on campus.
Paul R. Moore, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who served as Chief Investigative Counsel at the U.S. Department of Education, is a Senior Fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute.
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