Middlebury College’s decision to discipline 67 students who participated in a raucous and violent demonstration against conservative author Charles Murray brings closure to one of several disturbing incidents that took place on college campuses this semester. But larger disputes about the state of free speech on campus–and in public life–remain unresolved.
Many critics have used the incident at Middlebury, as well as violent protests at the University of California Berkeley, to argue that free speech is under assault. To these critics, liberal activists who respond aggressively to ideas they dislike are hypocrites who care little about the liberal values of tolerance and free speech.
“The left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down,” Milo Yiannopoulos posted on Facebook after protesters stormed a building at Berkeley where he was scheduled to speak in February.
Such criticism has not come solely from the right. Nor is it new. Over the past few years, a steady stream of commentary has deplored the state of free speech and intellectual inquiry on campus. The Atlantic has published a series of articles with titles such as “The New Intolerance of Student Activism” and “The Glaring Evidence that Free Speech is Threatened on Campus.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has argued that free speech in academia is at greater risk now than at any time in recent history. And the eminent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams went so far as to claim (prior to the election of Donald Trump) that the single greatest threat facing free speech today “comes from a minority of students, who strenuously, and I think it is fair to say, contemptuously, disapprove of the views of speakers whose view of the world is different from theirs and who seek to prevent those views from being heard.”