The Silencing of Heather Mac Donald
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By William McGurn,
Lofty college statements on free speech are worthless without enforcement.
No one who knows her could ever describe Heather Mac Donald as a victim.
Still, last Thursday night the Manhattan Institute scholar became the latest target of the latter-day Red Guards bringing chaos to so many American campuses. Ms. Mac Donald had been invited to talk about her book “The War on Cops” at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Among her arguments is that if you truly believe black lives matter, maybe you should recognize “there is no government agency more dedicated to the proposition” than the police who protect the law-abiding minority residents of high-crime neighborhoods.
You can imagine how well that goes over. At City Journal, Ms. Mac Donald offers a first-person account of that ugly evening. The day before, she says, event organizers told her they were considering changing the venue to a building with fewer glass windows to break. Such are the considerations these days on the modern American campus.
That evening Ms. Mac Donald ended up live-streaming her talk to a mostly empty auditorium as protesters outside banged on the windows and shouted. As a result, she could take only two questions before authorities deemed it prudent to hustle her out for her own security. As if out of central casting, the vice president for academic affairs and president of the college each issued mealy-mouthed statements supporting her.
With one hopeful difference.
In his note defending the university’s decision not to make arrests or force the hall open, CMC President Hiram Chodosh did say that students who blocked people from entering the Athenaeum “will be held accountable.” On Monday, a university spokeswoman, Joann Young, confirmed in an email that students found responsible face a range of sanctions including “temporary or permanent separation from the college.”
If true these are welcome words. For the main reason our colleges and universities are increasingly plagued by these illiberal disturbances is that there are seldom hard consequences for those who commit them.
At Yale, for example, when lecturer Erika Christakis sent an email declaring that students should make their own decisions about Halloween costumes—even when the costumes might be “a little bit obnoxious,” she wrote—it set off a storm of protest. Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, a master of one of Yale’s colleges, was surrounded by screaming students.
Cue to today: Guess who’s still on campus—and who isn’t? The Christakises are gone, with what appears to be no adverse consequences for the screamers. To the contrary, Yale’s president sought to placate protesters with a new center focused on race, ethnicity and social identity.
Claremont McKenna would do everyone a service if it made good on Mr. Chodosh’s promise to hold disrupters accountable. Unlike disputes over sexual assault that are also roiling our universities, protests that stop speakers from speaking are public and brazen, so there’s no excuse for handling these incidents in secret. If students are to get the message, the consequences must be relatively swift, clear—and public.
Here Ms. Mac Donald asks a good question: Where are the faculty? Plenty of professors are willing to sign a high-minded statement on speech. But why don’t we ever see faculty backing up their words by coming out en masse to place themselves between speakers and the protesters who would shut them down?
Today it’s common to lament the cheap and polarized politics in Washington. But no one asks whether this might have something to do with a generation of students indulged in the view that they should never have to hear an opinion different from their own. How much easier it is to bang on windows, block an entryway and drop your F-bombs than, say, engage the formidable Ms. Mac Donald in genuine argument.
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