New Mexico Students Shutdown Conservative Speaker in Latest Attack on Free Speech – JONATHAN TURLEY

We have another anti-free speech incident involving liberal protesters shutting down an event. Fox News pundit Tomi Lahren was cancelled at the University of New Mexico by students who refused to let others hear her remarks.  There is, however, a major (and hopeful) difference in this incident: the school is actually pledging to hold the students accountable. Some of us have called for such action for years to quell the anti-free speech movement sweeping across campuses.Groups organized on social media by posting an image which read “F**K WHITE SUPREMACY — Rally Against Tomi Lahren’s Speech at UNM — We Won’t Allow Racist Rhetoric to be Spread on Our Campus Unopposed.” The result was pandemonium as students entered the auditorium chanting “F**k Tomi Lahren” while others banged on the door. The threats led to Lahren, her father and a Turning Point USA representative having to lock themselves in a “back room” until local police arrived to support the campus cops already on scene.

The students celebrated their shutting down the free speech of others.

Fox News reported that “the University of New Mexico insists students will be held accountable for their actions” and added

“The safety of our campus community and visitors is our first priority. We are deeply disappointed in the actions of those individuals who intentionally chose to disrupt a scheduled speaker and infringed upon the rights of the speaker and those who attended the event to listen and engage, vandalized University property and unlawfully pulled a fire alarm. UNM is investigating these incidents and will hold anyone who violated the law or University policies accountable.”

If the university fulfills its promise, it will be a rare example of such accountability. Universities often mouth support for a diversity of viewpoints while not taking actions to discipline those who deny the free speech of others. That is a common pattern in schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown.  Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,”  Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned).

The most chilling aspect of this story is how many on the left applaud such censorship. A prior poll shows roughly half of the public supporting not just corporate censorship but government censorship of anything deemed “misinformation.” We discussed this issue with regard to a lawsuit against SUNY. It is also discussed in my law review article, Jonathan Turley, Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

We have seen how in universities (including state schools) this can turn into a type of “heckler’s veto” where speeches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of protesters. The issue is not engaging in protest against such speakers, but to enter events for the purpose of preventing others from hearing such speakers. Universities create forums for the discussion of a diversity of opinions. Entering a classroom or event to prevent others from speaking is barring free speech. I would feel the same way about preventing such people from protests outside such events. However, the concern is not with outdoor events where all groups can be as loud and cantankerous as their voices will bear. Both sides have free speech rights to express. The issue on campus is the entrance into halls, or classrooms to prevent others from hearing speakers or opposing viewpoints by disputing events.

This has been an issue of contention with some academics who believe that free speech includes the right to silence others.  Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over the use of a heckler’s veto on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU official.  Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech.  At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.  In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.

The University of New Mexico can defend diversity of viewpoints by holding these students accountable. Those who entered the event to disrupt it (or engaged in threatening conduct) should be reprimanded, suspended or expelled depending on the gravity of their conduct. We are at a critical point in higher education where we must either fight to preserve free speech or yield to a mob-led orthodoxy on our campuses.

 

jonathanturley

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