How Obama’s Thoughts on Campus Protests Differ From Both Democrats and Republicans

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U.S. President Barack Obama departs at the conclusion of his end of the year news conference at the White House in Washington on December 18. In his last interview of the year, Obama said that university campus activists go too far if they limit reasonable speech. Kevin Lamarque

Updated | In a wide-ranging, multipart interview with NPR airing this week, President Barack Obama gives his opinion on the protests across U.S. college campuses that have made headlines over the past months.

“I think it’s a healthy thing for young people to be engaged and to question authority and to ask ‘why this instead of that?’.... As I’ve said before, I do think there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right,” the president said.

Obama refused to weigh in on specific protests and movements at particular schools. Students have, among other things, called for changing the names of buildings erected in honor of slave owners or slavery apologists (at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Georgetown and Amherst); agitated for cultural sensitivity requirements for faculty and staff (at Princeton, Pomona and Yale); protested for the resignation of university presidents (at Pomona and the University of Missouri); and attempted to prevent certain speakers from coming to campus (at Yale, Rutgers and several other schools).

“There have been times when you’ve seen students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus, because they don’t like what they stand for,” Obama said, stating that he does not support these kinds of protests.

“If somebody doesn’t believe in Affirmative Action,” he said by way of example, “have an argument with them. It’s possible for somebody not to be racist and to want a just society, but to believe that [Affirmative Action]...is inconsistent with the Constitution.”

Though he stopped short of providing specific proscriptions for any campus protesters, Obama summarized his feelings by making a pro-free speech argument.

“My concern is not whether there is campus activism...that’s a good thing...what I don’t want is a situation in which particular points of view that are presented respectfully and reasonably are shut down,” he said.

Campus protests have proven to be politically polarizing: In the presidential campaign, Republicans have chided student activists and Democrats have voiced their support, with little ground in between or discussion of the merits of each individual case.

Obama is playing both sides, however. When delivered in a canned interview, his statements to NPR might not seem like such a controversial thing to say. But on campuses, citing “free speech” can provoke anger.

The most referenced-in-the-media example of anger (and silencing of the opposition) came from Yale University, where two dormitory deans sent an email to their residents singing the praises of free speech and expression, while criticizing censorship in the context of offensive Halloween costumes. In response, a female undergraduate got into a shouting match with one of the deans. The student did most of the talking—though the faculty member did lash out once—yelling that “it is not” the purpose of campus residencies to be an “intellectual space.” During the exchange, several students encouraged the undergraduate to walk away by saying “he doesn’t deserve to be listened to.” When the administrator said he “[had] a different vision” than the student, she replied by asking “why the fuck” he became a dormitory head. The “Shrieking Yale Girl” meme was born.

There were several circumstances surrounding the encounter. The Yale administration had issued a warning telling students to be careful about their choice of dress on Halloween, which prompted the dean’s email. The timing wasn’t a coincidence—earlier that month, protests erupted at the University of Missouri. Activists were so upset over the administration’s lax response to racially charged incidents that one black student went on a hunger strike until the school’s president resigned.

Earlier this year, Obama told high schoolers at an Education Department event in Iowa that he doesn’t think college students need to be “coddled.” It was one of several instances in which he has more or less sided with “free speech” writ large. The context of his argument was telling: Somebody had asked him how he felt about GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s suggestion that the federal government should withhold funding from universities with a demonstrated liberal bias. Obama went on to discuss his vision of college campuses as a place to be exposed to a range of ideas—an “intellectual space.”

In an interview with ABC News weeks later, Obama said that protesters and activists should be careful about taking things too far, warning that censorship is a “recipe for dogmatism.”

Not everybody likes debating as much as Obama, particularly when race is involved. Keep in mind, this is a president who for five years has done nothing but fight and debate Republicans over everything from healthcare to his birth certificate. Perhaps Obama is cautious about speech shutdown because he has dealt with such tactics when taking on Republicans.

Carson’s idea to defund “liberal” universities is indicative of a conservatism in Congress that has defined Obama’s presidency since 2010, after the Tea Party wave gave Republicans control of both houses. Whether it’s Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz or the House Freedom Caucus, or Donald Trump’s statement calling for the “shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S., the far right’s answer to addressing things they disagree with is not so different from the far left’s response: If you don't like it, then shut it down. Planned Parenthood protesters would likely argue that “selling baby parts” is just as offensive as naming a building after a racist. 

The Tea Party turned this tactic toward the federal budgetary process, attempting to hijack the budget over issues like Planned Parenthood, Syrian refugees and Obamacare. They forced former Speaker of the House John Boehner to resign when he tried to compromise with the administration.

GOP Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who was part of that 2010 Tea Party wave, has even threatened to “defund” the U.N. for recognizing Palestine, inviting Mahmoud Abbas to speak at general assemblies and debating a two-state solution in Israel—which he equated with anti-Semitism.

So does this new wave of campus protesters represent the Tea Party of the left? Not quite, since they haven’t managed to do anything similar to kicking out the speaker of the House...yet. Speaking to NPR, Obama reinforced something that the pundits ought to keep in mind before they demonize college students: They’re kids. They’re learning how to be good citizens, and engagement is better than apathy in that regard.

“Let kids ask questions and let universities respond,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that University of Missouri protests were in part prompted by students dressing in offensive costumes, including in blackface at parties. That incident had occurred a diffferent university.