Washington College students rudely disrupt a talk by a conservative scholar.
Stanford University Law School students rudely interrupt a conservative federal judge.
University of Pennsylvania students, disappointed by the school’s fossil fuels investments, rudely interrupt a Homecoming football game by storming the field at halftime and delaying the game for an hour. They hoped to gain attention (as they did) and alumni affirmation (which they didn’t).
Is free speech, as selectively applied by students displeased with a speaker’s political allegiance, fair speech? I think not.
Encouraged to be critical thinkers, students instead are favoring mob rule. Their treatment of people who think differently than they is abysmal. Their listening skills are defective. They believe that disagreement nullifies polite behavior. Their immaturity is astounding.
We are experiencing an epidemic of student activism similar to the protests that characterized the 1960s. Then, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights demonstrations ignited actions by young adults to occupy university administration offices and join marches in Washington and New York. The spark continued to inflame the first half of the 1970s.
Families steeped in the Great Depression and World War II became splintered. Privileged youth felt empowered to disclaim a war corruptly executed; unfortunately, they unfairly disparaged soldiers who had nothing to do with conceiving the Southeast Asian conflict. They justifiably condemned racism; they bravely suffered physical harm.
Nearly 65 years later, college campuses again are becoming battlegrounds for academic dissatisfaction. Those whose political philosophy is decidedly right-wing face uncalled-for disparagement from their liberal peers. Behavior has morphed into self-righteous indignation—and abject failure to listen.
Rudeness is the norm. It is unconscionable, destructive of civil discourse. Young undergrads don’t care. What matters is abject opposition. Free speech is weaponized.
Should undergrads accuse me of exercising judgment based on my advanced age, I would oppose that interpretation. Free speech is a Constitutional right, preferably devoid of heckling. It bears an unspoken responsibility to listen and treat the speaker with respect.
Or students can find something else to do with their time. That’s their right.
I must digress ever so slightly by referring again to Penn, my alma mater. The subject is fraught. The Palestine Literature Festival convened this past weekend, much to the angry despair of Jewish students and angrier dismay of alumni. Several speakers were known anti-Semites, including Roger Waters, a British singer who claims he is not an anti-Jewish, but someone who is critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
In a world dominated by nuance, American Jews too criticize the Netanyahu government for its oppression of Palestinians living on the West Bank. However, they do not voice anti-Semitic comments, only disappointment at the diminution of democracy in Israel.
Highly attuned to anti-Semitic comments and actions, Jews consider criticism of Zionism and Israeli policies toward Palestinians as code for anti-semitism. They may be right.
I am saddened by the university’s lack of judgment and its unwillingness to change course. And while I support the festival’s literary intent and free speech—if not a devious tactic to voice bigotry—I have spent painful time trying to divine the intrinsic value of free versus hateful discourse. If the latter leads to dangerous conditions imposed on Jewish students, then my tolerance weakens.
Anti-Semitic remarks sting me, as if fired by a stun gun. Still, a rude reaction is not my style. Agitated behavior accomplishes little but continuation of toxic dialogue.
University students, wherever they roam academic villages, achieve little but immature self-satisfaction when they exercise their free speech to thwart the expression of viewpoints antithetical to theirs.
Rudeness is avoidable. It also is inexcusable. Guest speakers who are not espousing viewpoints that can incite harm deserve tolerant hospitality.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.