Saturday, October 27, 2007

Free Speech on Campus

David Horowitz, who has been crusading (not unreasonably) against the chokehold that radical leftists have on many departments in many American universities, got shouted down during a speech at Emory University recently, and was forced to leave:

Conservative commentator David Horowitz was forced to cut short his speech on “Islamo-Fascism” in the face of repeated interruptions, heckling and catcalls from some audience members in a packed lecture room in White Hall on Wednesday.

The event played out like a tug-of-war between two groups: protestors who shouted questions or anti-conservative taglines after every few sentences Horowitz spoke and another faction in the audience who became increasingly vocal about their desire to hear him speak uninterrupted.

When the disruptions peaked about 20 minutes into Horowitz’s speech, Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity Ozzie Harris stood up at the back of the room and cautioned protesters to sit or risk being forcibly removed. Immediately, one man shouted: “Everyone stand up! They can’t take all of us!”

Later on, one of the silencers crowed triumphantly about what he had done:

“I really liked that people were able to stop this fascist rally from going down tonight,” said Jay Pasinelli, a dissenter who is not affiliated with the University. “We cannot be a docile audience after what we read on his web page. He ran away like a coward.”

Justin, a student from Georgia State who declined to give his full name because he said he feared public retaliation from Horowitz, said the pre-scripted question-and-answer format frustrated some of the attendants who hoped to engage Horowitz after his speech. Failing that, he said they resorted to interrupting.

“People wanted to come here and say something to this guy,” he said. “[He’s] here to create an atmosphere where Muslim students are targeted.”

Ignore the asinine reference to fascism, a sure sign of abject ignorance 99 percent of the time it is used. The key remark is that Justin and Mr. Pasinelli were justified because they “wanted…to say something to this guy.” With the growing tide of anger across the middle of the American political divide, and with the New Left and its nihilist multicultural progeny astonishingly overrepresented on American campuses, this kind of thing happens at more and more events. Typically, it is people of the left doing the shouting and people on the right doing the polite waiting. In addition to Mr. Horowitz, people like the abrasive commentator Ann Coulter and the founder of the anti-illegal immigrant group the Minutemen, Jim Gilchrist, have been thuggishly shut up during campus presentations. But the protesters say they too have a right to speak. So do they have a point? Economic theory has some useful things to say on this point.

Note first that the First Amendment is not at issue, unless it’s a state university. (Emory is not.) No one is being punished by the government for saying anything. So we’re not so much interested in the right of free speech as in the reasons for the right. And one of the reasons is to maximize exposure to ideas by allowing them to compete. But aren’t two ideas, those of Mr. Horowitz and the protesters, competing here? Not productively.

If a new gas station opens across the street from an existing one and charges lower prices, that is competition. But if the owner of the new station vandalizes the pumps of the old one, that is vandalism. The difference, as the economist Paul Heyne noted long ago in his wonderful principles textbook, is between competition and coercion. Coercion happens when we change people’s options by reducing them – by vandalizing someone else’s gas pump or shouting a speaker down. Competition happens when we change people’s options by expanding them – by inviting a controversial speaker to speak unmolested by protesters, for example. Coercion destroys value, competition creates it.

Every university in this country that claims to be a haven for free speech thus needs to adopt two principles. First, any group on campus can invite any speaker it likes. Second, no protest designed to limit opportunity to hear the speaker’s message will be tolerated. This is the way to maximize competition in ideas, whether the speaker is Mr. Gilchrist (who was prevented from speaking at Columbia) or Iranian president Ahmedinejad (whose appearance allowed Columbia to present itself as a free-speech martyr). Of course, our campuses as a whole currently have a substantial problem, namely that only a certain sort of speaker tends to get shouted down. (Has anyone ever tried to keep Barbara Ehrenreich or Naomi Klein from speaking, for example?) But that is another problem entirely.

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