Shutting Mouths -- and Closing Minds -- on College Campuses

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NACOGDOCHES, Texas – Teacher tenure usually enters the public policy debate in a context disadvantageous to its defenders: New York City public school teachers accused of sexual impropriety whose union keeps them employed; leftist professors who proselytize against Israel, the U.S. military, Republicans, and the very idea that America is a force for good; faculty members who hide intellectual laziness behind loony identity politics theory.

But as we say in the newsroom, that’s only one side of the story. I spent time last week lecturing at a state school in this small town. Here, I found myself amid professors who are smart, sensible, and committed to traditional liberal education. The venue was Stephen F. Austin State University, a school of 13,000 students, most of them from east Texas. It has a pretty campus, numerous majors to choose from, and much school spirit—aided recently by the appearance of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament the last two years.

I think the original Stephen F. Austin, the Virginia-born founder of the Texas Rangers, battlefield foe of Santa Anna, and the man Sam Houston dubbed “The Father of Texas,” would be proud of his namesake. I should note that the teachers I met were attracted to a small town with no airport because of tenure; they stay for the same reason. The students are better off because of it.

Yet, in Texas I heard about a recent flap in the campus censorship craze. This one is occurring at the University of North Texas in Denton, where an online petition is requesting the cancellation of the 2015 commencement speaker: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Even as these things go, the online petition was notable for its juvenile reasoning and wording. The governor, it says, “is an advocate for immigration reform, border patrol, and anti-equal marriage laws.” One supposes what they mean is merely that Abbott is a Republican—hardly a novelty in a state where Republicans hold every statewide office and Abbott won his gubernatorial race by a landslide.

Still, some 2,400 people have signed it, which makes you wonder where the grown-ups are hiding. Then again, when speaking invitations (and decisions to award honorary degrees) were rescinded to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers), Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Brandeis); and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde (Smith), professors were leading the charge. Such intolerance would be bad enough if confined to college campuses, but the illiberal liberals churned out by these schools have infested newsrooms, the Democratic Party, and other civic institutions.

So when conservative syndicated columnist George Will pens a piece expressing skepticism about the college rape scare, feminist activists didn’t hesitate to angrily demand that he be sacked. They found at least one taker, too: a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page editor publicly apologized for running Will’s piece, which he called inaccurate (without citing any inaccuracies). This gentleman also said he’d had his consciousness raised by talking with rape victims, as if George Will implied that none existed. This kind of logic is de rigueur among congressional Democrats these days; Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Robert Casey Jr. wrote Will a letter castigating him.

“You legitimize myths … [that] victim advocates have worked tirelessly for decades to combat,” they asserted.

The four Democrats didn’t mention the myths they are working tirelessly to promulgate, but George Will alluded to them in his reply: “I think I take sexual assault much more seriously than you do.”

In my view, such collusion between Democrats and the media undermines both institutions. It turns out, for example, that Obama administration gender police had their fingers in the debunked Rolling Stone college rape story that proved to be a hoax. Perhaps  a threshold has been reached. In recent months, a cadre of courageous liberals have begun saying it’s time to pump the brakes.

“The new codes sweeping American campuses aren’t just a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom, they're also intellectually embarrassing,” Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Sexual paranoia reigns; students are trauma cases waiting to happen. If you wanted to produce a pacified, cowering citizenry, this would be the method. And in that sense, we're all the victims.”

Kirsten Powers, an in-house Fox News liberal who regularly does battle with Bill O’Reilly and other Neanderthals at that channel, has written a new book on the subject: “The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech.”

Every week brings a new example, from George Washington University’s new gay sensitivity classes—mandatory for all student leaders—to the cancelling of the movie “American Sniper” at the University of Michigan.

The censorship in Ann Arbor was organized by sophomore Lamees Mekkaoui. A psychology major, she’s the kind of college student that would make almost any parent proud. According to her résumé, she was a straight-A student at Crestwood High School in Dearborn, where she captained the varsity crew team, served as student body president, was a member of the National Honor Society, volunteered at a shelter for young women with eating disorders, and launched an effort to raise funds for the construction of a school in Mali—all while working at a local fruit market.

In college, she has continued her social activism, while pursuing her studies. A native speaker of English and Arabic, she’s also proficient in French. Earlier this month, however, when she noticed that a campus group that promotes alcohol-free Friday night activities was planning to show “American Sniper,” she started a petition requesting the film be pulled. The movie, she asserted, promotes “anti-Muslim rhetoric … and “sympathizes with a mass killer.”

School officials backed down immediately, even offering the obligatory apology, notwithstanding this absurd interpretation of the film and the slander of a decorated Navy veteran, himself the victim of a murder when he returned home.

A backlash to the cancellation ensued, with yet another petition, leading to a second capitulation.

Perhaps that’s how freedom of speech issues must be resolved: noisily. I’d respectfully suggest another approach by college educators to deal with such controversies:

Watch the movie (or listen to the speaker) and then we can discuss it. Maybe you’ll learn something that challenges your pre-conceived ideas.  And isn’t that why you’re on this campus, to open your mind to new points of view? Who told you that the learning process—that maturing, expanding your horizons, meeting new people, cultures and ideas—should be a comfortable one? Whoever said that has misinformed you—and underestimated you.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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