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Free speech still under siege in the Ivy League

November 01, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was shouted down at Brown University.
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was shouted down at Brown University. (Richard Drew / Associated…)

On April 15, 1974, William Shockley, the Nobel laureate who believed that blacks were less intelligent than whites, was supposed to debate William Rusher, the publisher of the National Review, at Yale University on the topic: “Resolved: That society has a moral obligation to diagnose and treat tragic racial IQ inferiority.” The debate never occurred.

As a faculty commission impaneled to study free expression at Yale later reported: “For the first time in memory a speaker tried to speak at a scheduled appearance at Yale and was prevented from doing so by organized disruption.... The speakers were not permitted to say an audible word. They were drowned out by derisive applause, insults chanted at Shockley and shouted obscenities.”

The commission, headed by the legendary historian C. Vann Woodward, faulted “various elements in the university community” for an insufficient commitment to free speech. It made the  elementary point that members of the audience at a speech “are under an obligation to comply with a general standard of civility.” They can “briefly” boo, clap or heckle, the report said, but “any disruptive activity must stop when the chair or an appropriate university official requests silence.”

Flash forward four decades. On Tuesday, a speech at Brown University by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was canceled after opponents of the city’s “stop and frisk” policy disrupted the event. Communities United for Police Reform, a group that has criticized the stop-and-frisk policy, issued a statement nonchalantly observing that it wasn’t shocking that Kelly “would be poorly received” given the fact that he had presided over a discriminatory policy.

In other words, Kelly had forfeited his right to free speech, just as Shockley supposedly did in the 1970s.

Arguments for free speech, even in a university setting, can seem like thin stuff to activists who burn bright with outrage over evils they consider worse than censorship (and racism is such an evil for them). But the Woodward report makes a powerful case for the proposition that shutting down speech is not the answer. It's available online. The students who shouted down Kelly should read it.


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