Date of this Version
ACADEME BLOG The blog of Academe magazine, September 29, 2017
People often use their freedom of speech to disrupt the speech of others, especially on college campuses in recent years. Of course people have a right to protest, provided they are sufficiently quiet, brief, or distant so as not to prevent the speaker from being heard. On August 25, University of Nebraska–Lincoln sophomore Kaitlyn Mullen set up a literature table outside the student union to promote Turning Point USA, a libertarian/conservative campus-based organization. TPUSA proclaims its support for free speech but maintains Professor Watchlist, a blacklist of professors who have expressed leftist ideas, in or out of class. Before long, there were people demonstrating against TPUSA. One English professor held a sign asking to be placed on the blacklist. She was close enough to be seen by anyone approaching the table but not close enough to inhibit anyone from looking at the literature or engaging Mullen. Five other protesters were more aggressive, sometimes in concert. At least two engaged in extended hostile chants about TPUSA from close by, sometimes as little as a meter away. One repeatedly denounced Mullen as a neo-fascist (a label she rejects) and, at one point, flipped her off. She was eventually reduced to tears and says the two nearby protesters, although they stopped chanting, mocked her for crying. Were the protesters so loud, close, and abusive that they hindered Mullen’s ability to talk with students interested in her literature? Did they violate Mullen’s freedom of speech? Did some potentially interested students pass on by to avoid a nasty situation rather than talk with the beleaguered student at the table and run the risk of being targeted by protesters as another young fascist? If these were all students, even the most aggressive of the protesters might be protected by the First Amendment. Rather than scrutinize the student code of conduct for potential violations, it might be better for university authorities to announce that they are disappointed with the behavior of the protesters and explain why students should do their best to engage in civil argumentation. But one of the most aggressive protesters was a graduate student in English who also served as a lecturer. UNL may reasonably require its employees to treat its students respectfully, and may especially expect teachers to actively encourage and promote students’ intellectual freedom, at least for students in their classes.