At the very start of the early New Left — circa the 1964-65 academic year — students in Berkley, California, started what was called the Free Speech Movement (FSM). Back in those days, university administrators did not allow early supporters of the civil rights movement to try to gather support on campus or solicit donations to various civil rights organizations. The police were called in to arrest the offenders, mass arrests were made, and giant rallies surrounding the Sproul Hall steps had nationwide repercussions, including a backlash to the protests from California residents who backed Ronald Reagan’s campaign for governor of California a few years later. Reagan emphasized his opposition to the actions of the student radicals.
It also led to a speech by a young student named Mario Savio, whose following words sound today like a clarion call by a libertarian:
But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be — have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings! … There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
How times have changed. The very New Left students of that era — so many of whom now run the universities against which they once protested — have moved from support of free speech to what might be termed the “No Speech Movement.” Or, perhaps more accurately, speech for which only those whom they approve should be allowed. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the various incidents surrounding invited graduation speakers at some of the most well-known private liberal arts colleges as well as one state university.
Last week, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, announced that she would not appear at Smith College in order “to preserve the celebratory spirit” of graduation ceremonies at the college. One must wonder what anyone objected to in the choice of Ms. Lagarde, a woman who by any standards ranks as highly accomplished. The answer came in an online petition signed by 480 students and 120 faculty members, all of whom believe that Lagarde works for an institution that is part of “imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Even the public statement by Smith’s president, who wrote students that an invitation to speak did not mean an “endorsement of all views or policies” of the IMF or Lagarde and that their petition was “anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion,” did not succeed in stopping Lagarde’s decision to step down.
Then, following Lagarde’s withdrawal by one day, Haverford College made known their strong opposition to scheduled commencement speaker Robert J. Birgeneau. Ironically, he was the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley — the very university in which the FSM was born. Moreover, Birgeneau was a man of the political Left. Indeed, he was well known as an advocate for LGBT rights, the rights of undocumented immigrants (that is, illegal aliens), and “faculty diversity,” which many of us would call hiring by racial and gender classifications. What, indeed, could the student activists find objectionable in his scheduled commencement appearance?
One might consider his forced withdrawal a case of irony, as the chickens came home to roost, except for the fact that it revealed only how far the collapse of free speech has taken place. Fifty students — 50, mind you — hardly a huge number, revealed that Birgeneau could appear, if only he accepted nine conditions they then laid out. First, they objected that in 2011, he had supported police being called to campus to deal with “Occupy Wall Street” protestors demonstrating at the infamous Sproul Hall. They demanded his admission that he played a role in police arrests and actions at the site, that he “support reparations for the victims of the November 9th beatings and arrests,” and that he publicly admit in a letter to Haverford students that his own “actions have not been in line with the values of peace, non-violence, and political participation.” This brings to mind China’s Red Guards in the era of the ’60s “Cultural Revolution,” when the guilty had to confess their sins in a ceremony of humiliation. Birgeneau simply responded: “First, I have never and and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”
Thankfully, Harverford’s president told students in a letter that they sounded “like a jury issuing a verdict.” And as Daniel Henninger put it in a superb column in the Wall Street Journal, “No one could possibly count the compromises of intellectual honesty made on American campuses to reach this point. It is fantastic that the liberal former head of Berkeley should have to sign a Maoist self-criticism to be able to speak at Haverford. Meet America’s Red Guards.”