BY HANK REICHMAN
I thought I might write something in response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech this week at Georgetown University, but then I read Dahlia Lithwick’s take, “The Eggshell Attorney General,” and figured I had little to add. Here are her first three paragraphs, but the entire piece is worth reading:
Almost every word of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech in praise of the First Amendment at Georgetown University Law Center earlier this week would have been worth taking seriously if uttered by someone else under other circumstances. Sessions’ speech, though, was offered up in a room full of prescreened students who asked him prescreened questions while political demonstrators outside were penned off in “free speech zones.” Sessions’ prepared remarks, full of soaring citations to Martin Luther King Jr. and Justice Louis Brandeis, might have been worth at least a reckoning on their own terms, were it not for the fact that his parody of a rant about eggshell students and campus safe spaces was delivered by an eggshell attorney general in a specially designed campus safe space.
There’s already been a lot of reporting on how badly Georgetown Law handled the Sessions speech: Joe Patrice at Above the Law notes that school officials waited until the last possible instant before announcing the event and rescinded tickets for any student not enrolled in the classes of the professor who sponsored it. Faculty who asked for a courtesy ticket, meanwhile, were told they could not attend. Randy Barnett, director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution—which organized the speech and controlled all access to it—confirmed to USA Today that it was “a closed, invitation-only” gathering. He said this was in order to promote a “civil” discussion.
So when the attorney general waxed poetic about “the right of every American [to] the free, robust, and sometimes contentious exchange of ideas” it was just not possible to take him seriously. He was not only singing this tune in a safe space free from embarrassing brushes with any actual robustness or contentiousness; he was somehow simultaneously and without a hint of irony condemning campuses for allegedly creating “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” Sessions was literally condemning “free speech zones” and talking about the Justice Department’s role in a lawsuit over “free speech zones” while protesters were confined to “free speech zones.” He was literally quoting Justice Robert Jackson—“If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion”—while defending a president who wishes to fire NFL players who won’t stand and honor the anthem and the flag. The whole enterprise was hilarious in every single way, save for the fact that it promoted the fiction that millennials hate free speech, that only the left behaves in speech-suppressive ways, and that snowflakes are only really snowflakes if they snowflake on the other side.
And speaking of “snowflakes,” Eddie Glaude, Jr., chair of African-American Studies at Princeton, identifies “The Real ‘Special Snowflakes’ In Campus Free-Speech Debates” in a piece for Time. Here are some excerpts:
Many conservatives believe that universities and colleges have become illiberal spaces that stifle free speech. They point to the violent protests at the University of California, Berkeley, that prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, or the threat of protests that led to the cancelation of Ann Coulter’s appearance at the school. With horror, they recall what happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury College and list examples of coddled students protesting the likes of Condoleezza Rice. All of which reflects, they believe, a broader culture on campuses designed to quarantine students from diverse political opinions—to secure them in their “safe spaces” with “trigger warnings” and “political correctness.” No wonder, conservatives claim, that we have a generation of special snowflakes, quick to take offense and even quicker, when challenged, to melt like snow in the hot sun.
I ran smack into this argument on Morning Joe, where I often appear. Joe Scarborough and the panelists took a dumbfounding position, and I was flummoxed in my response. I spend every day on a campus that has plenty of political conservatives. I also know faculty who worry about facing death threats because of something they’ve said or written.
Public universities like the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are suffering under the weight of a conservative legislature and Governor Scott Walker. Lawmakers are passing deeply hypocritical “campus free speech” legislation to curb the right to free speech in the name of protecting conservatives. Even the President of the United States is willing to throw the First Amendment in the trash as he urges NFL owners to fire or suspend players who refuse to stand during the national anthem. The defense of free speech seems to be highly selective, but the idea of universities and colleges as hotbeds of intolerant liberals is just plain wrong.
Thousands of lectures across the ideological spectrum happen on campuses. Students go to classes, participate in various organizations and attend lectures without incident. Imagine how many times Murray or Rice or Ben Shapiro have actually spoken on campuses without it becoming a national spectacle. The protests we have witnessed recently are not the norm, but conservatives and even some liberal columnists would have us believe otherwise.
In many ways, the university setting is the most vibrant space for the free exchange of ideas in this country. That doesn’t mean that universities and colleges are free from the passions of political debate. Just as those passions inflame partisanship in national and local politics, they show up on campuses, especially in the hearts and minds of young people who fight it out, sometimes with abandon. . . .
Not all conservative speech is hateful speech, and we ought to be able to distinguish the difference. Most conservatives aren’t like Yiannopoulos, Spencer and Coulter. Such conservatives should, and do, speak on campuses every day. But if they hold controversial views, like any speaker of whatever ideological bent, they should expect a passionate response that may take the form of protests. And in those cases, students have every right to exercise their freedom of speech.
Some conservatives want to proselytize without pushback. They want to exact judgment without being judged. When others reasonably call them racist or sexist or homophobic, they clutch their pearls and cry foul. One wonders who the real snowflakes in this drama are.
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