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 firstname.lastname@example.org .