Don’t Shout Down Repugnant Speakers, Ask Them Tough Questions

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Students at the University California San Diego demonstrate against President Donald Trump's immigration orders in La Jolla, California, on January 30. Frederick Lawrence writes that just as protesters must allow speakers to present their ideas, speakers must be prepared to engage with questions and must answer them civilly. Mike Blake/reuters

Protesting students at UCLA and Claremont McKenna College handed conservative speaker Heather Mac Donald a clear victory last week by seeking to bar her from speaking.

Many have criticized Mac Donald's writings about police conduct and misconduct with respect to the African-American community, and indeed there is much to criticize there. But with respect to her right to be heard and for others to hear her, Mac Donald is correct.

Seeking to exercise the “heckler’s veto” of controversial speakers is not new. Ironically, it was a tactic used in the South during the Civil Rights movement to shut down demonstrations against segregation and Jim Crow. Indeed, as Harry Kalven persuasively argued over a half a century ago in a still relevant if anachronistically titled book The Negro and the First Amendment, the civil rights movement played an essential role in the development of what we now think of as fundamental First Amendment doctrine—freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of the press and especially the freedom to demonstrate and protest.

These freedoms, of course, protect those with whom we disagree and even those whose views we find repugnant. Denying free expression to those with whom we disagree is not only inconsistent with deeply held values, It is also simply counterproductive.

Related: Charles Murray: My free speech ordeal at Middlebury

Look at the consequences of what happened when students prevented William Shockley from speaking at Yale in the 1960s, when the village of Skokie, Illinois, sought to prevent neo-Nazis from demonstrated in the 1970s and more recently when protesters prevented Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College last month. Disruptive protesters handed those speakers the only victory they could obtain.

Shockley's eugenics, neo-Nazis’ white supremacy and Murray's use of “statistics” to advance facile racialist essentialist theory, will, when exposed to careful and exacting questioning, collapse of their own weight.

Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he asserted both that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and that the answer to flawed and even offensive arguments is “more speech,” not “enforced silence.”

Related: The 'war on cops': Flawed logic and fantasy

How Mac Donald would hold up under such questioning we do not know, nor is that my point at this moment. Now we will never know what might have happened at UCLA or Claremont McKenna. Sadly, students lost their chance to ask challenging questions and hone their own opinions, the essence of a liberal arts education. In a thriving democracy, our strength is in our raucous marketplace of ideas.  

Clearly, ground rules still apply to free expression. There is no place on campus for a speaker merely to come, speak and leave immediately thereafter. Just as protesters must allow speakers to present their ideas and allow members of the community to hear those ideas, speakers themselves must be prepared to engage with questions and must answer them civilly.

To be sure, there is also a place for protest. Those at UCLA or Claremont McKenna last week could have demonstrated outside the halls where Mac Donald was speaking and even engaged in silent non-disruptive protest inside those halls. There is room for strong debate and even protests on all sides, but not for “enforced silence.”

This type of robust engagement is what I call “vigorous civility.” The principles of vigorous civility begin with respecting the right of those with whom we disagree to speak, but it goes much further. We should look for common ground, even when we disagree, and articulate that common ground as part of the discussion.

We should assume the best in each other, and not suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree. And we should disagree without attacking each other personally, dispute without delegitimizing.

If vigorous civility can exist anywhere in our society, it should be on our college and university campuses. It is in fact the hallmark of a liberal arts education which itself is the bedrock of a constitutional democracy.

Frederick M. Lawrence is the secretary and CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and is the former president of Brandeis University.