Ben Boychuk

Protests by self-absorbed students are out of control

Students at Occidental College in Los Angeles occupy the administration building this week in protest over its handling of complaints about lack of diversity and discrimination. Ben Boychuk says too many of today’s students don’t understand free speech.
Students at Occidental College in Los Angeles occupy the administration building this week in protest over its handling of complaints about lack of diversity and discrimination. Ben Boychuk says too many of today’s students don’t understand free speech. Los Angeles Times

It’s difficult at the moment to imagine a more unreal place than an American college campus – a harrowing world where no space is ever safe enough, “inclusivity” is always just out of reach, the personal is political and parking is terrible.

And where never before has freedom of speech been so imperiled by people so lacking in learning and common sense.

When Hiram Chodosh, the president of Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, invited student protesters to hold a sit-in at his office last week to air their mostly imagined grievances, he ruled out the $60,000-a-year school as a serious institution of higher learning. Chodosh let students berate and curse at Mary Spellman, Claremont McKenna’s dean of student life, because of an awkwardly worded email. She resigned the next day.

At Yale, one of the most exclusive Ivy League schools in our perishing republic, students hurled profanities at a professor who had the temerity to suggest in an email that perhaps Halloween costumes were not worth fretting over. He apologized abjectly but might yet lose his job.

In the wake of that trauma, a student named Jencey Paz encapsulated the new spirit of the age in an article for the Yale Herald: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

If censorious students weren’t bad enough, we also have to contend with censorious administrators.

At the University of California, San Diego (my alma mater), Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla and nine top campus administrators on Wednesday issued a statement denouncing The Koala, a semi-pornographic humor paper on campus known for its unartful bludgeoning of politically correct pieties.

“The Koala is profoundly repugnant, repulsive, attacking and cruel,” the administrators said, calling on “all students, faculty, staff and community members to join us in condemning this publication and other hurtful acts.”

And other hurtful acts. Good grief.

The administration doesn’t fund The Koala; students do. So what happens when the people in charge of the university feel compelled to castigate a student publication in such grotesque terms? The student government decides to defund all student alternative media publications.

I wish I could pin this illiberal sclerosis entirely on millennials, who have expressed in survey after survey their belief that the First Amendment is overrated. But that would excuse the people who taught them such rot – baby boomers and, to a certain extent, my own generation.

I wouldn’t expect a single newspaper column to alter the tide of public opinion, but I would simply like to reintroduce an old idea into the record.

Shortly before his career was cut short by a stroke in 1948, the great 20th-century newspaperman H.L. Mencken sat down for an interview with the Library of Congress. Mencken described himself as “an extreme libertarian … believing in free speech and every other kind of freedom, up to the last limits of the endurable.”

But, Mencken added, “there is a limit beyond which free speech can’t go, but it’s a limit that’s very seldom mentioned. It’s the point where free speech begins to collide with the right to privacy.”

“Nobody’s got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors,” Mencken said.

“Or to hurt his neighbors’ feelings,” the interviewer interjected.

“To hurt their feelings wantonly,” Mencken replied.

Mencken wouldn’t have the slightest sympathy for today’s college students, who have made guarding their fragile personal feelings the highest good of human interaction. What he described is a much more sensible – even moderate – approach.

We have a generation seemingly unable to endure freedom of speech. What’s missing is common decency and fellow feeling – characteristics that cannot be imposed through a campus speech code or administrative diktat.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. He can be contacted at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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