Student Demonstrations: Power, Not Freedom of Speech

Randall Smith: We will either teach our young people the skills and self-discipline required for republican self-government and fill them with the faith in it and love for it they need to preserve it, or we will lose the privilege – a gift bequeathed to us at great cost.


“Did you get caught in the student riot?” asked a friend.  “What riot?” “The Pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Texas.” I am at UT on a sabbatical. “We don’t have student riots in Texas,” I informed him; “we have temporary misunderstandings between students and state troopers about who controls public spaces. The students learn.”  The authorities in Texas are not as feckless as those running the East Coast Ivies.

As Wilfred McClay points out in a recent article in The New Criterion, demonstrations aren’t “speech.”  They may be “expressions” – of anger, frustration, sometimes boredom. But they’re not “speech” in the classic sense of logos, “reasoned discourse.”

In speech, you express an idea; you make an argument; and you invite others to respond.  The demonstrations on college campuses are not invitations to dialogue; they are the opposite.  They demand that dialogue stop and obedience begin.  In this, they are similar to groups shouting down speakers with whom they disagree.  It should be no surprise, then, that both have become standard practice together.

It’s not as though the demonstrators are inviting reasoned responses to their position.  They’re not willing to hear contrary opinions.  They have “demands” and those demands must be met.  They are a mob, and mobs are something, along with tyranny, that the Founders of the country feared most.

When demonstrators are pretending to be engaging in free speech when what they are really doing is showing the power of a mob to get others to conform to their will, they shouldn’t be surprised if authorities respond to their demonstration of power with a demonstration of power of their own.  Those Texas state troopers weren’t on campus to argue.  But neither were the demonstrators.

Perhaps the most ridiculous feature of these recent protests is the shock the students evince when, having violated repeated orders to disperse, they are finally arrested.  That many must be hauled away because they’ve “gone limp” belies their wide-eyed innocence, since it shows they’ve received training in “what to do for the cameras when the police haul you away.”  Perhaps we can all agree that it’s no way to run a republic.

Some years ago, a bright student of mine had a complaint about something on campus.  “Okay,” I said, “so what are you going to do?”  After a moment’s thought, she said: “Gather people together to demonstrate?”  “How about getting elected to student government, writing an op-ed in the paper, seeking to convince others of your position?” I replied.  Those options either hadn’t occurred to her, or she had no faith in them.

Democracy is a messy business; it requires patience and skills of its own.  It’s not like driving a car that moves in the direction I steer, accelerates to the speed I want, and stops when and where I determine.  It means dealing with other people.  And other people have ideas and concerns of their own.

Show no interest in the ideas and concerns of others, and they are likely to return the favor.  Like you, they want to drive the car in the direction they want.  And as everyone who spends time on America’s highways knows, this highly individualistic lack of concern for others is bad for everyone.

As we need “rules of the road” to provide the order that ensures everyone can get to their destinations “freely” and in relative safety, so too if speech is to be “free,” if it is to be a “common good” and not merely the privilege of one powerful group, speakers must observe a set of procedural norms meant to preserve this freedom for everyone.

At the University of Texas, the Provost sent out a note outlining the rights and duties of the members of the community.  Among the rights were the right to “assemble peacefully to protest,” to “hand out flyers and brochures,” and to “invite guest speakers to present in common outdoor areas.”  But with this freedom comes responsibility.  Thus individuals, said the Provost, may not “disrupt the operations of the university, including but not limited to:

Making loud sounds that interfere with learning; teaching, or other official actions; blocking entrances, exits, and walkways; calls for immediate lawless behavior, and vandalism.

Camping or attempting to camp on university property (including bringing tents on campus and sleeping on university property, with or without a tent, later than 10:00 p.m.).

Refusing to identify themselves to university officials or law enforcement.

Refusing to comply with directions given by university officials or law enforcement.

Using amplified sound without prior approval.

Wearing masks or disguises.

Coercing attention by following students walking away from the protest.

Campuses around the country would be better off if they posted those rules and enforced them.  Students would be better off if they abided by them respectfully and stopped screaming like little children for the cameras when they get hauled away by the authorities for violating reasonable rules.  Such demonstrations of political theater are attempts at emotional blackmail.  They don’t help the Palestinian people, but they make the American public more cynical about real acts of government suppression and police brutality.

Government can be overly coercive in suppressing speech it doesn’t like, and we’ve had too many examples of that recently.  But mobs are not “democratic governance in action.”  They are simply another form of tyranny.  Which is why they are often found in the same places among the same people.

We will either teach our young people the skills and self-discipline required for republican self-government and fill them with the faith in it and love for it they need to preserve it, or we will lose the privilege – a gift bequeathed to us at great cost.  Catholics should lead the way in educating their students for this level of civil engagement and discourse. This would show that what St. Augustine argued in The City of God is true: Catholics aren’t dangerous aliens. Quite the contrary, their Christian faith makes them better citizens.


You may also enjoy:

David Warren The Present Desolation 

Brad Miner Is a Free Society Stable?


AUTHOR

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.

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