Silencing Dissent Is Social Injustice
In an editorial published Wednesday, the editorial board of The Student Life—the Claremont Colleges’ newspaper funded almost exclusively by mandatory student fees—“wholeheartedly disavow[ed] the sanctions Claremont McKenna College imposed” on students who blockaded the entrances and exits to a scheduled appearance by conservative scholar Heather Mac Donald at the college in April.
The board rests its case against the sanctions on a black-and-white portrait of moral rectitude. While the protesters are fearless warriors for social justice forcing the college onto “the long path towards equity,” CMC plays the role of the evil conservative campus scrambling to preserve its antiquated and morally bankrupt institutions.
By punishing the protesters for their heroic act of aggression in the face of Mac Donald’s objectionable views, TSL believes, CMC shirked its duty to advance justice: in this case, apparently, the muzzling of Heather Mac Donald.
But this definition of social justice, which would empower any sufficiently motivated group of students to shutter the speech and assembly privileges of others, contravenes the very purpose of higher education and, ironically enough, would provide a sufficient basis for suppressing the speech that TSL would prefer to see pervade the campus debate.
Imagine that it hadn’t been Heather Mac Donald speaking at the Athenaeum. Imagine instead that it had been you, and a group of students, convinced of your depravity, blockaded the doors and shoved away attendees in order to silence your dangerous words. Granted the freedom to silence on the basis of their moral outrage, your critics would have all the justification they could possibly need to muzzle you and deny you your audience—regardless of the content of your address.
In this way, the freedom to silence others suffocates all other freedoms, and it ushers in only a principle of power: whoever can silence speech is right to do so.
Such a principle would offer no protection to the marginalized. In the course of our nation’s history, marginalized groups have wielded their rights to speech and assembly in order to force profound changes to the moral constitution of this country and its people.
During the civil rights movement, opponents of Black equality wielded their political power and preeminence in mainstream moral thought to oppose social and political freedoms for Black Americans. If not for the right to point out the wrongfulness of these prevailing views and to be heard while doing so, the status quo would have prevailed far longer—perhaps even indefinitely—against the sharp challenges posed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. Indeed, if not for these rights to speech and assembly, many freedoms which African Americans now enjoy might never have arisen at all.
With this in mind, even when speech is profoundly immoral or objectionable, we must protect it. For when we may wield our own moral authority to silence speech we find objectionable, those in power have full license to silence our own on the same grounds. In such a world, when the winds of power shift, we are left without refuge from the tyranny of the strong, regardless of the righteousness of our views.
Let us be perfectly clear: students had every right to protest Heather Mac Donald’s visit to campus. No matter how wrong or ill-informed they may have been about the true nature of her views, their rights to free speech and assembly deserve the same protection as Mac Donald’s. For this reason, the college could not have justified relocating the protesters to a soundproofed classroom, where their rage could not have been heard or seen. Neither would CMC have been entitled to shatter a peaceful protest by force, to threaten those present with discipline or physical harm if they continued criticizing the invited speaker, or to punish everyone who participated in the protests.
But the students whom CMC sanctioned were not engaged in mere peaceful protest. They blockaded the venue with the express purpose of stripping from Mac Donald her right to speak and denying her audience their right to listen. They sought not to criticize Mac Donald and her ideas, but to prevent their communication in the first place. They wielded power as a weapon to crush the rights of others, rather than as a shield to protect them.
Our rights cease to be rights when we treat them as a mere means. The value and purpose of rights lies in their neutrality—in the fact that all people, regardless of their politics, values, or stations in life, may enjoy the benefits that their rights entail. By seeking the destruction of the rights of others, these students undermined this essential guarantee and in so doing undermined the rights themselves.
Sanctioning these students was not an act of shame or fear or desperation. As TSL’s journalism amply demonstrates, it is convenient to surrender to the mob. It takes courage, however, to protect and preserve the liberties they threaten.
Through these sanctions, CMC has reaffirmed its commitment to the rights of all people to engage in free speech and assembly on its campus without fear of suppression and intimidation. And though the college’s fiercest critics may not realize it, if not for these rights, they could not be critics at all.
Matthew Reade — Editor-in-Chief
Sophie Mann — Deputy Editor-in-Chief
William Gu — Publisher
Megan Keller — Opinion Editor & CFO
Ross Steinberg — Managing Editor
Elliot Dordick — Senior Associate Editor
Photo credit to Walt Pourier / Flickr.