10 Thoughts on College Protests Targeting Conservatives

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Protests on college campuses are nothing new; student protesters in the 1960s helped sway public opinion on the Vietnam War. But in recent years, a disturbing trend has emerged as protesters have tried to prevent or disrupt appearances of conservative speakers on campus. Some of these protests have turned into mini-riots, involving property damage, injuries and arrests. This is a textbook First Amendment issue that raises questions about the right of free speech, versus the rights of others not to be offended by what they may deem “hate speech.” Here are some thoughts on both sides of the issue from recent months.

A crowd at UC-Berkeley protests a planned visit by conservative Milo Yiannopoulos in February. The university canceled the appearance because of safety concerns. © Joe Parks


10. “Berkeley used to be the cradle of free speech. Now it’s just the cradle for f***ing babies. … This goes on all over the country on campuses. They invite someone to speak, who is not exactly what liberals want to hear, and they want to shut her down. I feel like this is the liberals’ version of book burning. It’s got to stop.”

— Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, after UC-Berkeley canceled a speech in April 2017 by conservative author Ann Coulter because of safety concerns. The university then offered a rescheduled date at another location; Coulter refused, and said she’d show up at the original date. Maher, a devoted liberal on most causes, conceded he’s a friend of Coulter’s, although he said he disagrees with everything she’s said.


9. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

— President Donald Trump, in a Feb. 2 tweet, after protesters led UC-Berkeley to cancel a speech by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Protesters caused an estimated $100,000 in damage at the university and at least six injuries were reported.


8. “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”

— Former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, in an April 2017 tweet.


7. “Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous — to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation. To me, it’s a sign of intellectual weakness. If you can’t ask Ann Coulter in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming, what does that tell the world?”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders, telling the Huffington Post that even speakers with views liberals disagree with should be allowed to speak.


6. “For too long, a flawed notion of “free speech” has allowed individuals in positions of power to spread racist pseudoscience in academic institutions, dehumanizing and subjugating people of color and gender minorities.”

— A Middlebury (Vt.) College student, quoted in the New York Times, after protesters disrupted a lecture in March 2017 by controversial author Charles Murray. He co-authored the 1994 book The Bell Curve, which contends there are racial differences in intelligence. Protesters injured a Middlebury professor. Crowds at other schools have also protested Murray’s lectures.


5. “There are people who are eager to portray college students or the entire higher education establishment as hopelessly out of touch, a bastion of liberal indoctrination, and I think that’s fundamentally false. However, events like last night’s do feed that false narrative.”

— A Middlebury College spokesperson, after the aforementioned protest against Murray.


4. “Ironically, young people clamoring for trigger warnings and safe spaces are one generation removed from — and potentially the children of — men and women who came of age in the 1960s, when Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement set a new standard for unfettered speech.”

— Liberal commentator Nina Burleigh, in a 2016 story in Newsweek.


3. “People have had enough. They are standing up for themselves. They are finally exercising their freedom of speech. … No one is saying to people that you cannot say ridiculous things. What they are saying is that you are going to be held accountable for them. … When a person of color says that what you just said to me sounded or felt racist, we’re not attempting to shut down the conversation. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite — we’re inviting you to engage with us.”

— Shaun Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Harper made these comments during an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate hosted by Yale in 2016.


2. “A state university … can only cancel an event if it meets the ‘clear and present danger test,’ a doctrine defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1919. Under that ruling, free speech can only be limited by a law or agency if there is a clear and present danger to public safety and property.”

California Magazine, a UC Berkeley alumni publication, summarizing the thoughts of Berkeley law professor Robert Cole.


1. “Absolutely protest these people you don’t like, absolutely write against them, denounce them. But the solution to bad speech is good speech, the solution to bad speech is more speech. Once you start saying, ‘You can’t talk,’ then whoever’s in power gets to impose that on whoever’s not in power and that’s not good.”

— Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, in the Huffington Post.

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