Light A Candle: How Some Universities Are Striking Back Against Cancel Culture

Conservative exclusion on campus is virtually as old as conservatism itself. More than 70 years ago, a 25-year-old William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career as a prescient public scholar by exposing the vice-like grip liberalism exerted over academia in “God and Man at Yale.” Since that time, leftist orthodoxy has moved infinitely further Left and become the default ideology of even the most remote regional campuses.

Campus activists have routinely shouted down — even physically assaulted — conservatives with few meaningful repercussions. Now, a small but growing number of universities have recommitted themselves to the principles of free speech and tolerance for conservative views — and are telling incoming freshmen they will find no “safe space” on campus.

Conservatives hunted in liberal “safe spaces”?

Much of academic cancel culture claims that certain forms of speech merit suppression, because they constitute “violence” and put students in “danger.” Yet at the same time, many conservative students say their physical safety has been threatened by an unbridled, censorious Left. Take Therese Purcell, the young woman behind former Republican congressman and Lt. Col. Allen West’s visit to the University of Buffalo last month. Tired of being inundated with Critical Race Theory, she invited the black conservative to discuss why “America Is Not Racist — Why American Values Are Exceptional” on April 7.

Campus leftists tried to disrupt the event — although they failed to intimidate West, a combat veteran whom they refused to engage. “We had an open Q&A during the event, but instead of asking peaceful questions, they decided to resort to violence,” said Purcell.

“It got crazy as we went to leave,” said Purcell. “I was quickly separated from the police, as they were protecting Colonel West … and about 200 of my fellow students started hunting me down on campus.” Purcell said activists punched and kicked a fellow member of her organization, Young Americans for Freedom, while she called 911 while hiding in a bathroom stall.

 “I was really afraid for my life, since they physically assaulted my friend,” she told Fox News. “They were screaming, ‘No peace.’ I don’t think they were going to do anything remotely peaceful.” As of this writing, the University of Buffalo Police Department is investigating the event … although it sounds as though it’s investigating campus conservatives, as well.

About a month earlier, more than 100 students at Yale Law School disrupted a panel hosted by the Federalist Society — again, ironically, on free speech. The March 10 event would have featured two speakers — conservative Kristen Waggoner, general counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, and liberal Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association — whose two groups had collaborated on a free speech lawsuit. They hoped to teach students that people of diametrically opposing viewpoints could work together to secure fundamental liberties. Instead, campus leftists disrupted even faculty moderators; one protester told a student member of the Federalist Society, “I will literally fight you, b***h.” After the event, campus police escorted the speakers away for their own safety. After public exposure, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken wrote to all law school students and faculty that “this is not how lawyers interact.”

These recent stories are far from new or unique. Ben Shapiro, the founder of The Daily Wire, has been threatened numerous times. In 2019, campus leftists protested a Shapiro speech at George Washington University with fliers telling his sponsors to “get security.” He also had campus speeches canceled, purportedly on the grounds that they threaten public “safety” — although it was Shapiro who needed a police escort to get safely off the campus of California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) in 2016.

Others were not as fortunate. A mob at Vermont’s Middlebury College chased American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray off campus in 2017. While he escaped without injury, students grabbed the professor who interviewed Murray and twisted her neck, causing her to need a neck brace. None of the students received a suspension, although the university expressed disapproval toward some of the perpetrators.

The events go back decades:

  • Two protesters tried (unsuccessfully) to throw a pie in the face of Ann Coulter during a speech at the University of Arizona in October 2004;
  • In March 2005, a protester threw salad dressing on three-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan during a speech at Western Michigan University; and
  • Just two days earlier, a protester threw a pie in the face of William Kristol, who then identified as a neoconservative, during Kristol’s speech at Earlham College in Indiana.

Harvard founded so students can ‘know God and Jesus Christ’

This is a far cry from the ideology espoused by many elite universities’ founders. “Everyone shall consider as the main End of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is Eternal life. John 17:3,” read Harvard’s original mission statement.

“Almost all Ivy League institutions had similar beginnings,” wrote Roger Schultz of Liberty University. “They were established by conservative Connecticut Congregationalists (Yale), pro-Awakening New Jersey Presbyterians (Princeton), devout Rhode Island Baptists (Brown), and mission-minded New Hampshire evangelicals (Dartmouth). These schools shared common commitments to the authority of the Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the need for a Christian influence in society.”

Yet as part of its long march through the institutions, the Left gradually changed these institutions’ unofficial religion from Christianity to liberalism. Some universities have begun pushing back against the intimidation of conservatives.

Light a candle

The University of Chicago sent a letter to students at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year forthrightly defending the vigorous exchange of ideas — and insisting students should expect nothing less from a university environment:

Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter added that true diversity — “[d]iversity of opinion and background” — is “a fundamental strength of our community.”

Other universities have put those commitments to the test. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) ranks Claremont McKenna College first in the nation for protecting conservative and liberal speakers. When a group of Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a speech by Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald, the university livestreamed her speech, posted the video on the school’s website, and suspended five students responsible for the disruption — two of them for a year.

Still others try to assure students are exposed to the ideas that helped form America’s great academic tradition in the first place. The University of Colorado’s Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization encourages students to investigate “the intellectual, artistic and political traditions that characterize Western civilization” by “fostering dialogue about fundamental values and controversial questions.” It hosts a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy, and past scholars include such intellectual heavyweights as John C. Eastman, Bradley Birzer, Robert W. Merry, Francis Beckwith and Steven Hayward.

Critical engagement with a wide variety of philosophies is the cornerstone of any university-level education. As John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty”:

The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.

Perhaps the academic Left, by depriving America’s young people of exposure to conservative and traditional religious viewpoints, has something other than education in mind.

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