In March 2017, student protestors disrupted a Middlebury College talk by infamous American political scientist and sociologist Charles Murray, known not only for (you guessed it) race-based explanations for differences in IQ, but also for advocating for the elimination of the welfare state, affirmative action and the U.S. State Department of Education. In October 2017, students at Columbia University protested a Skype-delivered speech by Tommy Robinson, founder of the anti-Islam English Defence League. And, in October 2019 — here at Yale — Harvey Mansfield, a controversial professor of government at Harvard and author of the creatively titled book “Manliness,” faced student opposition for his talk to the Directed Studies program.

Recently, there has been a common claim that people on the right cannot speak on college campuses. Protests, such as the one in Middlebury, are regularly dubbed as violent attacks on free speech by conservative students and university administrations alike. The most frequent left-wing responses to this argument focus on the content of the ideas that are being censored. More importantly, however, the left should start focusing on an additional angle, making clear that the right is co-opting a historically left-wing tenet of political discourse: free speech and protest.

Opposing fascist sentiments, combating hostility towards minority students and the limitations of free speech itself are often provided as part of the leftist defense. But leftists should work to channel their own history in these debates. For generations, the left has advanced the place of free speech in political society, enshrining it as a way to speak truth to power.

The current debate centers around whether universities should be a space where “invigorating” and “provocative” ideas should be discussed, or a safe haven where hurtful ideas require banishment. But what is missing in the left’s case against giving a platform to offensive and harmful conservative speakers is the fact that free speech only exists on college campuses today because of the work of countless leftist activists.

Making this history a part of the conversation changes the terms of the debate: free speech on campus did not emerge in a vacuum — it was a tool to verbalize the struggles of marginalized communities and should be employed today in respect for that legacy.

The first mass act of civil disobedience on an American college campus, the Free Speech Movement of 1964–65 at the University of California, Berkeley, was influenced by the emergence of the New Left, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement — all of which originated on the political left. But even before students at U.C. Berkeley rose in defiance of on-campus political silence, black students in the U.S. South were creating new ways of practicing freedom of speech. In 1917, thousands of African-American students from across the nation participated in the anti-lynching “Silent Parade” in New York. In 1924, at Fisk University in Tennessee — influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois’ commencement speech at the school — students staged walkouts in light of concerns surrounding the university’s disciplinary rules that undermined black identities.

During this time period, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Bob Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) all carried out continuous and extensive ground work on college campuses and throughout the country. In doing so, they reified freedom of speech as a universal right in the decades that followed.

Conservatives fail to realize that free speech was not the medium, for example, that allowed Yale to be an institution limited to elite, white men. It was free speech, however, that allowed this old Yale to begin to break down.

According to historical records available at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration, in 1968, the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) organized a two-day boycott of Yale classes, remonstrating Yale’s treatment of its students of color and highlighting the University’s refusal to acknowledge the Native American land it was built on.

While students of color were pushing the boundaries of student expression on Yale’s campus, the University administration was invoking “reason” against political dissension. In September 1968, President Kingman Brewster Jr. addressed the incoming Yale College Class of 1972, stating that although the University was “an oasis for revolutionary reappraisal,” such reappraisal had to “respect reason.” In the face of such continued repression presented as rationalism, it was progressive, left-wing students at Yale that worked to reconstruct and revolutionize freedom of speech.

Before the right can poach and rebrand this political tool for its own purposes — around the country and especially on this campus — it needs to recognize and contend with this history. Today, when identifying leftist students as opponents of freedom of speech, “allegedly silenced” conservatives ignore the lineage of the very right they claim to protect.

IMAN IFTIKHAR is a first year in Morse College. Contact her at iman.iftikhar@yale.edu .

  • Man with Axe

    Everyone pretty much knows this history. It doesn’t change the main point: If the left wing are entitled to free speech on campus, so are the right wing. That’s not very hard to figure out.

    When leftists interfere with or disrupt the speech of rightists it is the leftists who are ignoring, or who are ignorant, of the history of free speech.

  • Will Wilkin

    But what seems to be missing from the analysis in this argument is whether protesters should be allowed to shut down public speakers, on campus or anywhere else. Also, I’ll add that not everybody can or should be categorized as :left” of “right,” since good ideas can come from a wide range of places on that so-called spectrum, and since thinkers should always be considering whether their own understandings are missing anything and how those they disagree with might still have valid points deserving serious consideration. Anything less devolves into ideology, which might feel empowering but actually cripples the intellect and impoverishes civic discourse.

  • Higherominous Bosh

    “[W]hen identifying leftist[s] as opponents of freedom of speech, ‘allegedly silenced’ conservatives ignore the lineage of the very right they claim to protect.”

    So what? No, really: So. What?

    BTW: The “lineage” of free speech goes back a bit further than the flower-power ’60s, m’ man: Its “lineage” can be traced allah way back to, like, 6/21/88 — as in 1788, i.e., to the signing of the Constitution.

    Also, Conservatives don’t nec. want to protect free speech–at least in the way you’ve herein described–so much as to exercise it, that G-d-given right being enshrined in the aforesaid Constitution, where gubmint “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” You see, the Framers observed (not declared) certain rights (but not all possible rights) as “self-evident” and “unalienable,” i.e., deriving not from gubmint but endowed by G-d (or, more specifically, by our “Creator”).

    “But what is missing in the left’s case against giving a platform to offensive and harmful conservative speakers is the fact that free speech only exists on college campuses today because of the work of countless leftist activists.”

    Again: So. What? Even were what you wrote true, are you suggesting that the “work” of “leftist activists” in the past entitles them to some-are-more-equal-than-others” supremacy today (or ever)? That y’all are somehow now the gatekeepers?

    Your own words speak your “yes,” given that you–of the more lefty persuasion, one assumes–have crowned yourself an arbiter or what is “offensive” and “harmful.”

    Reprise: “‘[A]llegedly silenced’ conservatives ignore the lineage of the very right they claim to protect.”

    I just googled: conservatives silenced on campus. The results show WAY more sources (even many left-leaners) that find this to be true than sources that don’t. You may be suffering a bout of (or congenital) “Nobody I know voted for Nixon” bubbleview if you look around campus and, for the life of you, can’t seem to identify any, none whatsoever, fear of or execution of reprisals against Conservatives, and not just Cons but anyone exploring or wondering aloud about–not even espousing–views that differ significantly from prescribed orthodoxy.