There seems to be one thing a divided Congress can agree on: College campuses pose a dangerous threat to free speech.
First Amendment advocates such as former ACLU chief Nadine Strossen and libertarian media personality Adam Carolla testified as part of a panel Thursday before House Oversight subcommittees on the dangers of “safe spaces” and violent reactions to “hate speech” on U.S. campuses.
“I’m thrilled with the resurgence of student activism in respect to racial justice and social justice,” said Ms. Strossen, a professor at New York Law School. “But I am disheartened by their apparent belief that freedom of speech is an enemy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“The whole struggle for racial justice throughout the history of this country, starting with the abolitionists and going through the civil rights movement, and every movement for social justice is critically dependent on robust freedom of speech — including for ideas that were controversial.”
Mr. Carolla, co-creator of the campus documentary “No Safe Spaces,” blamed violent student protests on parents and administrators who have protected students to a fault.
“We’re talking a lot about the kids, and I think they’re just that — kids,” the comedian said. “They grew up dipped in Purell, playing soccer games where they never kept score and watching Wow Wow Wubbzy — and we’re asking them to be mature? Children are the future, but we are the present. We’re the adults, and we need to act like it.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the hearing expressed agreement with the panelists.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, urged students of color to embrace the First Amendment rights of others and be resilient in the face of insulting comments.
“It pains me, I have to say, when I hear African-American students in particular claiming about hurt feelings when it comes to speech,” Ms. Norton said. “I say that as a black woman, and I ask them to remember that at the same time that African-Americans were enslaved, Frederick Douglass was able, in even that society, to denounce slavery all over the United States.”
Rep. Gary J. Palmer, Alabama Republican, said the most troubling part of the anti-free speech movement is its traction among young people: “There’s a Pew Research Center study that shows that 40 percent of millennials believe the government should be able to prevent people from publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.”
Recent incidents of on-campus anti-free speech activism include:
• Protesters at the University of California, Berkeley rioted and caused more than $100,000 worth of damage to prevent a speech by conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos in February.
• The school also canceled a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter in April, citing a fear of violent response.
• Students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, in May seized control of administration buildings in protest over a professor who had criticized the school’s diversity initiative of asking white people to leave campus for a full day.
Another panelist — conservative critic Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire — said such behavior is driven by the dangerous belief that speech is the equivalent of violence.
“It tells members of a generation already beset by anxiety and depression that the world is a far more violent and threatening place than it already is. It tells them that words, ideas and speakers can literally kill them,” said Mr. Shapiro. “At a time of rapidly rising political polarization in the U.S., it helps a small subset of that generation to justify violence. Indeed, protesters all too often engage in physically violent disruption when they believe their identity is verbally attacked by someone — usually conservative.”
Last month Wisconsin lawmakers passed legislation mandating disciplinary measures against students who limit others’ right to free speech on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The measure was supported solely by Republicans.
“What kind of polarization is this?” Ms. Norton said of the lack of Democratic support. “I’m glad we don’t have that in this committee.”
Asked about how hate speech and hate crime differ, panelist Frederick Lawrence said determining a student’s intent is the most efficient way for administrators to make the call.
“Is the intent to communicate, however hateful the idea? Or is the intent to intimidate and threaten the victim?” said Mr. Lawrence, national commissioner of the Anti-Defamation League.
He noted Taylor Dumpson, the first black woman to preside over American University’s student government. During her first day in office, bananas were hung by nooses on campus targeting a predominantly black sorority.
“This goes beyond the boundaries of free expression into a hate crime,” Mr. Lawrence said. “There is broad agreement on our panel today: Robust free expression is central to the mission of our colleges and universities.”