The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday concerns freedom of speech. This freedom is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it is under continuing assault.
The latest assault took place on the campus of the University of Oregon when President Michael H. Schill attempted to give his state-of-the-university speech.
Schill says that he planned to announce a $50 million gift to the university that would provide funding for several new programs. He was unable to present his comments because students with “a megaphone and raised fists” protested rising tuition. He posted a recorded version of his remarks online.
Stating that he has “nothing against protest,” Schill says that he is concerned about the act of silencing other people’s right to speak.
I have nothing against protest. It is a time-honored form of communicating dissent. Often, the concerns students express very much deserve to be addressed. But the tactic of silencing, which has been deployed repeatedly at universities around the country, only hurts these activists’ cause. Rather than helping people who feel they have little power or voice, students who squelch speech alienate those who are most likely to be sympathetic to their message.
It is also ironic that they would associate fascism with the university during a protest in which they limit discourse. One of the students who stormed the stage during my talk told the news media to “expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” That is awfully close to the language and practices of those the students say they vehemently oppose.
Fundamentally, fascism is about the smothering of dissent. Every university in the country has history classes that dig into fascist political movements and examine them along very clear-eyed lines. Fascist regimes rose to power by attacking free speech, threatening violence against those who opposed them, and using fear and the threat of retaliation to intimidate dissenters.
By contrast, American academia is dedicated to rational discourse, shared governance and the protection of dissent. Historically, fascists sought to silence, imprison and even kill university professors and other intellectuals who resisted authoritarian rule. So the accusation that American universities somehow shelter or promote fascism is odd and severely misguided. (Emphasis added.)
The protesters are apparently concerned that the protection of free speech also permits neo-Nazis and white supremacists to voice their views. Even though he is opposed to all that these groups profess, Schill explains that “offensive speech can never be the sole criterion for shutting down a speaker.”
Schill continues with an explanation of how “the word `fascism’ has deep emotional connotations for me. It’s the reason for great suffering in my family. Two generations ago, members of my extended family were thrown into concentration camps and murdered in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.” He explains that he is offended when anyone accuses him of “leading an institution that harbors and promotes fascism,” but that does not justify censoring another person’s right to speak. We must have the freedom to share our ideas, even offensive ones, in order for our society to move forward. The students are definitely misguided in their attempt to stop their university president from speaking.