Shutting down free speech

As Maine’s legislative leaders bring us to the brink of a government shutdown, it is worth diverting our attention to some other places in the country that are shutting things down.

One such place is Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, where an increasingly aggressive group of student “protesters” have been on a mission to destroy the First Amendment.

The environment at Evergreen got so bad, including heated protests and a threat to execute people on campus, that the school had to suspend operations from June 1 to June 5, which were days that the last of its spring term classes were to be held. A literal shutdown.

Campus activism, and college kids acting like foolish children, is nothing new. But there is something insidiously different about this situation, and it is a phenomenon that we are seeing more frequently every year.

It is no longer enough to protest and demand action. Now, a bullying, threatening mob of young people — and not just at Evergreen — are demanding dissent be intimidated into silence, because certain opinions are, to them, simply invalid and unworthy of protection.

The concept of respecting another’s right to free speech, and the validity of disagreement in our society is something that is less and less prevalent in the young people of today.

In a recent Gallup survey, a full 27 percent of college students reported a willingness place restrictions on those “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”

The Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of millennials believed that the government should be able to prevent people from making public statements that are offensive to minority groups. Yes, the government empowered to restrict speech.

But let’s get back to Evergreen.

Problems began there when a campus tradition called the “Day of Absence” was changed. The Day of Absence is a longstanding, respected event which has been conducted since the 1970s. It involves minority students taking a leave from the school for a day, and attending programs off campus.

It harkens back to a play by Douglas Turner Ward, where white residents in a southern town awake to find that all of the black community members have disappeared, forcing those who remained to confront the necessity of their black neighbors in their lives.

This year, however, the event was reversed. White students, staff and faculty were invited to leave the campus.

Professor of biology Bret Weinstein, a self-described “strong progressive,” objected to the change and refused — under intense pressure from students and faculty — to participate, saying in an email published in the student newspaper, “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles … and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.”

“On a college campus,” Weinstein wrote, “one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin color.”

This infuriated a select group of students, who branded Weinstein — again, a self-described progressive — a racist. They then interrupted a class of his to confront him, and demand his resignation for criticizing the changes to Day of Absence. The video of the confrontation is shocking, and the acerbic, bloodthirsty vitriol of the students is palpable.

After the confrontation, Weinstein was forced to hold classes off-campus, as campus police informed him that they were not able to guarantee his safety at the college.

The next day, about 200 students stormed the president’s office and occupied it, swearing at him while presenting a list of demands, including, of course, Weinstein’s firing, and a homework exception for the days of demonstrations.

The president later gave a speech responding to the demands, enabling the mob by giving in to their homework exception, complimenting them as “courageous” and having “passion and courage.” He also agreed require “sensitivity training” for all employees and students of the college.

That wasn’t enough, of course.

Students at the college who are not involved in the protests are terrified. Speaking to Vice, a liberal news magazine, one student refused to use her full name and reported an intense fear of articulating any kind of “nuanced opinion,” lest she be be attacked by the mob.

This isn’t healthy, folks, and our ability to say so should have nothing to do with left-right politics. The professor being attacked here is a liberal, on one of the most left-leaning, activist college campuses, in one of the most progressive states in the country.

Four thousands students can not and should not be held hostage and intimidated by the harsh bullying of overzealous thought police on campus, and none of the adults should cower in the corner, in fear of saying that this is wrong.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.