The New Brownshirts: Thugs vs. Free Speech on Campus
The future for free expression in the West is looking bleak.
Leftist students routinely intimidate and even physically menace those who dissent from their views, especially pro-Israel students. Conservative speakers are rarely invited to campuses, and when they are, face legions of hostile and even violent protesters. Universities are increasingly hostile to conservative views, and are mostly indoctrination centers for the hard Left. This is academia today, as I detail in my new book The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies).
On September 29, 2016, retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel and former Congressman Allen West was scheduled to speak at Saint Louis University (SLU) on what he termed “the threat of radical Islam.” A group of Leftist and Muslim student protesters, led by the SLU Rainbow Alliance and the Muslim Students’ Association, packed the hall and then walked out, leaving West to speak to a nearly empty room.
That was the culmination of protests that had led SLU administrators to forbid the Young America’s Foundation (YAF), the organization sponsoring West’s speech, to use the words “radical Islam” on posters and fliers advertising it. West, not disposed to acquiesce to this censorship, had written before the event, “I along with the YAF activists will not back down from this challenge. And if this is just a case of ill-conceived political correctness, we’ll rectify that. But, if this is a case of the influence of stealth jihad radical Islamic campus organizations such as the Muslim Student Association, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, then you will be exposed. And I recommend to the President of St. Louis University, you do not want it known that a radical Islamic organization is dictating speakers on your campus—that is not the type of PR you really want.”
But rather than affirming the importance of free discourse and the airing of dissenting views (never mind rejecting jihad and Islamic supremacism), SLU President Fred Pestello declared his “solidarity” with the protesters against the “provocateur” West.
YAF national spokeswoman Emily Jashinsky noted that what happened to West at SLU is common. “This is what happens when students attempt to bring one conservative speaker to a liberal campus. Threatened leftists do everything they can to erect obstacles.”
The whiff of a threat was unmistakable. And it was understandable that Jewish groups would feel intimidated, as groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association have been growing increasingly aggressive and even physically menacing toward those who dare to question support for the Palestinian jihad against Israel.
Universities were much more solicitous about the sensibilities of Muslims.
The April 5, 2016 issue of The Gleaner, the student paper of Rutgers University–Camden, published a cartoon of Muhammad, Buddha, and Jesus in a bar. Its content, however, cannot be known at this point, because at the behest of Muslims on campus the entire issue has been deep-sixed. This is an incident fraught with implications for the health of the freedom of speech today.
Two weeks after the cartoon was published, the April 19 issue of The Gleaner contained a letter from the Muslim Brotherhood campus group, the Muslim Students Association, saying that it found the image offensive and asking The Gleaner to remove the image from the April 5 issue and circulate a new edition of that issue without it. The MSA letter claimed that Christians and Jews on campus told MSA members that they, too, found the image offensive.
The MSA letter stated, “Even though freedom of speech and press is emphasized and is something all of us value as proud Americans, the University prides itself on diversity of people of different faith and backgrounds so we feel that it is necessary to respect those faiths and backgrounds by honoring their beliefs.”
The April 19, 2016, Gleaner contained a response to the MSA letter written by Christopher Church, the paper’s editor in chief. Church apologized to the MSA and agreed to meet with it “so that we can rectify this issue and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.” He also agreed to remove any copies of the offending April 5 issue from the Gleaner boxes around campus and destroy them.
Neither Church nor anyone at Rutgers appeared to be aware of, or to care about, the fact that the freedom of speech as a Constitutional right it is not negated by anyone’s taking offense. This incident could and should have been a chance for Rutgers and The Gleaner to explain why the freedom of speech must be protected as our fundamental bulwark against tyranny, and why that means that we must all learn to put up with material that offends us.
And once a group’s feelings of offense are taken as decisive, that group has a license to take offense at other aspects of campus life. What if Muslim Student Association members declare themselves offended at men and women sharing classrooms at Rutgers, or pork being served in the Rutgers dining hall?
In light of the violent attacks on those who have depicted Muhammad, The Gleaner was bowing to the implicit threat of violence—which in the long run only encourages more violence. Around the same time the Rutgers Muhammad cartoon incident played out, the Rutgers Art Library featured an “artwork” depicting Jesus on a dartboard. It was ultimately removed, but not because it offended Christians. No one cared if Christians were offended: Rutgers officials knew that offended Christians wouldn’t murder them. Their solicitousness toward the MSA, by contrast, reveals that they knew offended Muslims might very well kill them. Rather than stand up for the freedom of speech and against this kind of bullying, they signaled their willingness to surrender and fall into line, accepting Sharia restrictions on speech.
The double standard was stark: Jesus crucified on a dartboard was art—and what’s more, it was courageous – while a cartoon of Muhammad was beyond the bounds of acceptable expression. One Rutgers student chortled on Facebook that the dartboard “art” was “hilarious,” and crowed that “we don’t have to cater to the wills of the Church or any denomination of Christianity or religion.” A cartoon of Muhammad, on the other hand, was an outrage. No one was crowing about not having to cater to the wills of the mosque.
This is the kind of respect being irrationally violent will win you. This respect won at the point of a sword does not bode well for the future of free expression in the West.
The brownshirts were back, and on American campuses. And administrators all too often appeared anxious to placate them, rather than determined to protect the freedom of speech and curb their influence.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech (and Its Enemies). Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.