Around the country, colleges have found a new excuse for shutting down free speech: safety.
Just as “national security” has periodically served as a pretext for robbing Americans of civil liberties, so too has “campus security” become a convenient rationale for discarding commitments to free speech. Unwilling to either defend controversial speech or cop to censoring it, college administrators are instead increasingly invoking public “safety” when they cancel events.
Ben Shapiro, a young conservative firebrand who has criticized Black Lives Matter, has recently been disinvited from two college campuses due to “security” concerns. In February, his scheduled talk at California State University at Los Angeles was canceled — or rather, indefinitely delayed — so that administrators could “arrange for him to appear as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints on diversity.”
The university president said the decision “was made in the interest of safety and security.” (Shapiro showed up on campus anyway; security indeed had to smuggle him through a back entrance to protect him from protesters, one of whom pulled a fire alarm to disrupt the event.)
Then, last month, a student group at DePaul University in Chicago had to revoke its invitation to Shapiro after administrators barred him from campus over “security concerns.”
A month earlier, DePaul had barred Milo Yiannopoulos, a sort of professional troll and informal spokesman for the racist, anti-feminist alt-right, from returning to campus. An earlier visit resulted in student protesters storming the stage, with one protester allegedly assaulting Yiannopoulos; security at the event did not intervene.
Lest you assume only conservatives get barred from campuses for “safety” reasons, consider the cancellation of a talk slated for last week at Newman University in Wichita.
The student history club had invited Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier to “discuss topics such as how to get into law school, what it is like to be a judge and what role judges play in the judicial system,” according to the Wichita Eagle.
Sounds like a relatively innocuous speech, no? But anti-abortion activists vociferously objected to her presence, because the judge had previously ruled in favor of abortion rights. The administration caved.
“We worried about safety of students, and about perhaps having a guest on campus not treated right,” the provost told local press.
Newman is a private, Catholic school, meaning it is not bound by the First Amendment. The administration would have been well within its rights to forbid any speakers who did not share the school’s values. Alternatively it could have pushed back against critics on the grounds that it protects open discourse, even when coming from speakers who do not share all its values.
Instead, the administration — like that at other schools — lacked the courage to do either.
Exactly what kind of “safety” is being safeguarded in these cases remains ambiguous, of course. Is this primarily about students’ emotional safety and mental well-being, per the typical usage in the term “safe spaces”? Or is this about safety from physical harm?
The elision here may be deliberate, particularly given that hurtful words are so often conflated with actual violence — which, to some, justifies retaliating with not just passionate counter-speech but also actual violence, as has happened on several campuses when protesters turned rough and rowdy.
If schools truly cared about zeroing out the possibility of public unsafety, they would cancel all football games, as well as inebriated graduation festivities, or really any large campus gathering. Clearly that’s not a trade-off they’re willing to make.
When it comes to inflammatory speech, colleges seem to be making a calculation about what will result in less-bad PR: accusations of censorship, or the photos of their officers removing an unruly protester who has just pulled a fire alarm or attempted to assault a controversial speaker?
And so appealing to “safety” becomes their escape hatch, which incentivizes more threats of violence. The heckler’s veto lives on.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.