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Opinion What is the greatest threat to free speech on campus?

A bonfire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley in February 2017. (Ben Margot/AP)

What is the greatest threat to free speech on campus today? If all you had to go by was the new report from the University of California at Berkeley’s Commission on Free Speech, you could be forgiven for thinking conservative provocateurs are single-handedly determined to destroy our First Amendment freedoms.

The report was commissioned after several violent protests reacting to pro-Trump rallies, a speech by conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and a canceled speech from Ann Coulter. How to explain the violence that ripped apart the campus last year? “Ultra-conservative rhetoric, including white supremacist views and protest marches, legitimized by the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath,” the commission concludes, “encouraged far-right and alt-right activists to ‘spike the football’ at Berkeley. This provoked an at-times violent (and condemnable) response from the extreme left, tearing at the campus’s social fabric.”

The Berkeley document does not condemn the violence, mind you; that is virtually the only direct mention of it. But apparently, antifa’s violence is now eligible for condemnation, if someone else had a mind to provide it.

They have plenty of harsh words, however, for the conservatives who were targeted. “Many Commission members are skeptical of these speakers’ commitment to anything other than the pursuit of wealth and fame through the instigation of anger, fear, and vengefulness in their hard-right constituency.” Their invitations to speak represented “the assertion of individual rights at the expense of social responsibility by a handful of students.” As a result, the commission finds speech of this kind “hard to defend, especially in light of the acute distress it caused (and was intended to cause) to staff and students.”

In the report, conservatives are active, provoking and triggering. The left-wing activists who set things on fire appear in passive voice, that great grammatical machine for sanitizing the indefensible. Left-wing groups have reasonable fears for their safety from conservative speakers, and the police needed to defend them (from what? Further deponent sayeth not.) Conservative students “allege” that their beliefs make them targets for left-wing professors. And when it comes to the remedies, it’s clear who the commission thinks ought to change their ways.

The commission’s members can’t quite bring themselves to say campus conservatives ought to be prevented from inviting speakers antifa doesn’t like. But they can’t quite keep themselves from implying it, either. Again and again, they impugn the motives of speakers and the students who invite them, complain that conservative groups are a tiny minority (isn’t this supposed to mean we try extra hard to make them feel welcome?), and otherwise suggest that the real culprits are conservatives, not the people committing the violence. The commission recommends thinly-veiled mechanisms to make it difficult for conservatives to stage these events — for example, by requiring student groups to provide one student volunteer for every 50 expected attendees, a rule that is obviously going to disproportionately burden groups representing a small minority.

And it seems they would like to go further, banning events that will require a lot of security, because “the campus should not have to expend scarce resources to protect celebrity provocateurs seeking to promote their brand . . . when so many essential needs go unfunded or underfunded.” Alas, the report sighs, “courts are likely to rule against public entities seeking to limit free speech, and any cap on expenses the campus sets might seem arbitrary.” Moreover, such a cap “might have the unintended consequence of precluding events that contribute to scholarly discourse.”

These are rather telling choices of words. Conservative free speech is, apparently, an inessential function on the campus that gave birth to the free-speech movement. And since precluding scholarly events would apparently be an “unintended” consequence, we can infer that pretextually precluding Coulter or Yiannopoulos from speaking would be entirely intentional.

I have some small bit of sympathy for the commission. I myself am not fond of either Coulter or Yiannopoulos, who do not seem to me to have anything very interesting to say, and who state what few ideas they have in the most provocative possible fashion, so that the resultant screaming will drown out the banality of the actual content. And yet provocative speakers with a high noise-to-signal ratio are hardly a new phenomenon on campus. They are not confined to the more exotic provinces of the right.

And I hardly believe that I have to say that — whatever their offenses against common manners and common sense — Coulter and Yiannopoulos are not smashing people in the head with bike locks.  They are not hurling Molotov cocktails. They are not attacking young women with flagpoles. The people doing those things are the ones the commission has tenderly swaddled in the protection of the passive voice. To focus on the motives of the speakers, rather than the violent actions of the protesters, suggests a commission that has allowed their tribal politics to blind them to basic human decency.

Imagine a commission which had declined to suggest their troublesome conservative minority was a plague on the campus, and instead reached out to them in fellowship. “Look,” they might have said, “your numbers are small, but we are all equal members of the community, and we value your presence. Our whole community needs to act, together, to stop this madness. Can we ask you, in the spirit of community, to pick speakers who are not going to be lightning rods for violence? If you can do that, then we pledge to do what we can to support your events enthusiastically, to figure out how we can keep antifa in check, and to curb the ostracism that is naturally making you feel so angry and alienated.”

Perhaps this wouldn’t have worked. But you can at least imagine the other path working. The problem is, you can’t imagine commission members being able to get those words past the angry lumps in their throats. And thus the ancestral home of the free-speech movement inches as close as it dares to advocating for censorship of any speech that offends a powerful majority — or even any minority that’s decently armed.

Which is a metaphor for all politics today. We are a nation that is so angry at the other side, so blinded by our own grievances — real and imagined — that we are no longer living up to our most cherished values, or even looking out for simple self-interest. All we can see is the enemies in our midst; all we can feel is the rage that demands they be silenced, or destroyed.