Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Pyrrhic Victory for Free Speech

Seems like some college students are hitting the barricades more than the books, and university administrators have set an admirable but flawed precedent to deal with them.
The University of California at Irvine has recommended a one-year suspension for its Muslim Student Union after members of the group repeatedly disrupted a February speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at the college campus. Among their comments: "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech." Of all the charges the university launched at the MSU, the one that seemed to stick most was "participation in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly."
In considering the benefits that colleges offer to students, one of the most important is exposure to ideas with which they disagree. The preacher's daughter from the Bible Belt can take a course in evolution ... the Cambridge liberal can study how rent control and Social Security are economically questionable ... and Jewish and Muslim students alike can explore the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
The corollary to this is that colleges need to teach students how to disagree. No one should sit mutely through a speech they find objectionable, but neither should they throw tantrums worthy of a two-year-old. Going to college implies that we should act in a collegial manner, after all, and as the town-hall protests over health care showed, too many Americans aren't doing that these days. For the spirit of intellectual inquiry to progress, in college campuses and beyond, we need a respectful medium.
A one-year suspension for the MSU is a positive step toward showing students the difference between right and wrong ways of dissent. Yet it raises some vexing issues. Will colleges across the United States act so vigorously when other student groups act up in ways that administrators might secretly admire? I'm thinking about:
  • the Arizona undergrad who threw a pie at Ann Coulter
  • the New School students who slammed John McCain on graduation day
  • and the free-Tibet activists (I was one of them) who demonstrated against the Chinese government's visit to Harvard back in 1997.
The trouble with policing dissent is that colleges can't do it selectively. They should either punish everyone or no one. For the Irvine Doctrine to succeed, the college must apply it unequivocally.
Of course, there is an easier way to teach students how to express dissent, and that is through debate. I wonder if the MSU would have been so prone to act disrespectfully had the university brought in Ambassador Oren not as a solo speaker, but as someone debating the Israeli side of Mideast issues with a pro-Palestinian counterpart. (Harvard, for instance, did this several years ago in an exchange between Noam Chomsky and Allan Dershowitz.) Ultimately, dialogue might be the best deterrent to disrespect.

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