WASHINGTON — Free speech on college campuses attracted congressional attention on Tuesday as a Senate panel questioned students, academics and lawyers after the abrupt cancellation of several high-profile speeches from California to Texas.
Students and academics insisted the golden rule is for the speech to go on as long as violence can be prevented, dismissing the idea of intolerance.
The hearing came after a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter at the University of California at Berkeley was canceled amid fears of violent student protests. More recently, a commencement address by the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, was canceled after opposition from students at a historically black university.
Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, said that a “heckler’s veto” should not be allowed.
“I think the answer is to make sure they don’t create a disturbance and to threaten them with punishment, meaningful punishment, if they do create a disturbance,” Volokh said. “If thugs learn that all they need to do in order to suppress speech is to threaten violence, then there will be more such threats.”
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the universities can’t always deal with the fallout when anarchists and others respond to the appearance of a speaker they oppose. She said the biggest threat of violence often comes from people who don’t attend the university.
“You don’t think we learned a lesson at Kent State way back when?” Feinstein said at one point.
In 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on protesters of the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students died and nine others were wounded.
Zachary Wood, president of a student group called Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College in Massachusetts, said he identifies as a liberal Democrat, but he faced a strong backlash from fellow students when inviting provocative speakers to the campus. That backlash extended to the school administration as well, which made it harder for Uncomfortable Learning to bring speakers to the campus and canceled one speech arranged by the group.
“Instead of nurturing thoughtful debate of controversial topics, many college educators and administrators discourage free debate by shielding students from offensive ideas,” Wood said. “Yet, one person’s offensive idea is another person’s viewpoint.”
The witnesses on Tuesday acknowledged that university officials at times have a difficult choice to make.
“These are always judgment calls that are made,” said Frederick M. Lawrence, secretary and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the United States. “I think the way to start with this is a strong presumption in favor of the speech.”
Republicans on the committee were overwhelmingly critical of the cancellations. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa, said that on too many campuses, free speech appears to have been “sacrificed at the altar of political correctness.”
Grassley said college students vote and when universities suppress speech they may “cause and exacerbate the political polarization that is so widely lamented in our society.”
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the tensions on college campuses reflect the growing political polarization in society, which has been exacerbated by the presidential campaign and growing white nationalist activity. He said that given the political climate in the country, he expects violent confrontations on college campuses to increase in the fall.
Cohen cited the appearance of white nationalist Richard Spencer at Auburn University this spring in telling lawmakers what the university did right and wrong in handling his speech. University officials were right to say they abhor Spencer’s views, but they were wrong to cancel his appearance altogether out of fear of violence, Cohen said. A judge subsequently cleared the way for Spencer’s speech after hearing arguments in a lawsuit claiming the university violated free-speech rights by trying to stop Spencer’s appearance.
“The university was perfectly capable of providing for its security,” Cohen said, adding that the cancellation allowed Spencer to “parade around as a 1st Amendment hero.”
Cohen said only in rare cases should universities cancel a speech.
“We fight speech that threatens our nation’s Democratic values with speech that upholds them. It’s an obligation that university officials have and that everyone in public life, starting with the president, has as well,” Cohen said.