Safe from speech

Another excerpt from the New Criterion piece on the push for “safe spaces” on campus, and how Ohio State dealt with the sort of student protesters whose own political intransigence often makes a healthy intellectual engagement with meaningful subjects impossible:

A group of students [at Ohio State], marching under the rubric #Reclaimosu and representing a dozen campus organizations such as the Committee for Justice in Palestine, Still We Rise, osuCoalition for Black Lives, and (possibly for comic relief) “Real Food osu,” occupied part of Bricker Hall, which houses part of the osuadministration, including the president’s office.

No self-respecting student protest can proceed without a manifesto and list of “non-negotiable” demands, and #Reclaimosu did not disappoint, even if some of the grievances—we’re thinking of the demand for a “just, transparent and democratic food system”—seemed somewhat overbred. The meat and potatoes (if we may continue the food metaphor) were mostly off-the-rack items from the menu of contemporary left-wing causes. The Committee for Justice in Palestine, for example, wanted the university “to divest from companies that are complicit in Israeli apartheid,” while osu Divest demanded that the university divest its holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and G4S “due to their involvement in well-documented human rights abuses.” United Students Against Sweatshops, meanwhile, wanted the university to halt its energy management plan, because it would “further privatize our university,” derailing the great goal of “student led sustainability measures.”

As manifestos go, it was pretty pathetic, but it was accompanied by the usual declaration of intransigence. “We will not leave this space,” it insisted, “until both of the below demands are met.”

This is where things got interesting, and President Michael Drake came into his own. He sent osu Senior Vice President Jay Kasey as his ambassador to the protestors. Speaking in calm, measured tones (the video clip is widely available on the internet), Kasey explained that he was not there to negotiate. “Dr. Drake will never receive a list of demands and he will not negotiate with you.” Er, what? Yes, they heard right. They were in violation of the Student Code of Conduct, Kasey informed them, and if they did not vacate the building by a certain time, police officers would be called to clear the room. The administration was pleased, he added, to “give you the opportunity to go to jail for your beliefs.”

This wasn’t part of the script the students had signed on for. “What do you mean by ‘clear the room?’ ” one student asked. “Our police officers will physically pick you up,” Kasey patiently explained, “and take you to a paddy wagon and take you to be arrested. You will be discharged from school also.” Hmm. What do you mean “discharged?” someone asked. Probably, Kasey clarified, you will be expelled.

Gratifying as that exhibition of vertebracular stiffness was, what was most instructive was the rationale Kasey enunciated for insisting on the students’ removal: they were violating a “safe space.” The people who worked in the building, he explained, felt intimated by their presence.

I fear that what safe space/trigger warning advocates either don’t realize or don’t care about is that the sort of society they’re intent on creating would be one that’s hostile toward First Amendment free speech. There’s this rooted hostility, in other words, toward one of the basic premises for our way of life. It’s tough to imagine calls for less free speech (let alone free range intellectual discourse) will stay confined to our campuses.