Chalk one up for free speech on campus

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    Let’s applaud Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor and quadrennial presidential tease, for something he said this weekend during a commencement speech at the University of Michigan.

    The freak show grinds on — Carly Fiorina fell off a stage, a perfect metaphor; Ted Cruz tried in vain to reason with Trumpitistas who brainlessly chanted Der Leader’s “Lyin’ Ted” mantra; Hillary Clinton said that her March promise to put coal miners “out of business” was merely a “misstatement” (yeah, sure); Trump said that Cruz’s dad aided Lee Harvey Oswald (?!?) — but let’s briefly leave the trail. Please. If only to salvage our sanity.

    Instead, let’s applaud Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor and quadrennial presidential tease, for something he said this weekend during a commencement speech at the University of Michigan:

    The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure groups and shield students from [disagreeable] ideas through “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” is, in my view, a terrible mistake. The whole purpose of college is learn how to deal with difficult situations — not to try to run away from them. A “microaggression” is exactly that — micro. But in the macro sense, one of the most dangerous places on campus is a so-called “safe space,” because it creates a false impression that we can isolate ourselves from those who hold different views. We can’t, and we shouldn’t, try — not in politics or in the workplace.

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    Some of the students, apparently accustomed to being cocooned, booed Bloomberg. But they’ll learn soon enough that there’s no coddling in the real world.

    I’m flagging this issue because I’ve been bugged for weeks by a recent incident at Emory University in Atlanta. Students awoke one fine morning to discover that the words Trump and Trump 2016 had been chalked on campus sidewalks. But instead of shrugging off the graffiti, viewing it as an exercise of free expression, or simply waiting for it to be washed away by the rain, some of the students freaked out and ran crying to the university president.

    One of them led a chant: “We are in pain!” Another said, “I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school.” They did meet with the president, and the president duly wrung his hands. He said in a statement that the students were “upset by the unexpected chalkings,” that they had “voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation,” that they wanted Emory to “provide a safe environment.”

    Oh, please. These college kids, at Emory and elsewhere, need to toughen up. As Atlanta newspaper columnist Jim Galloway advised, “Deal with it, or get thee to a monastery.”

    But the reaction at Emory — and the reaction to Trump chalkings at other campuses (known on Twitter as #TheChalkening) — comes as no surprise. All too often, the impulse in academia these days is to protect the kids from disagreeable views, sometimes at the expense of free speech. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said it best last September in a piece called “The Coddling of the American Mind”:

    Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense …. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm …. What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection?

    I’m thinking of the ’08 incident at Purdue, where a white kid was found guilty of racial harassment by the school’s Affirmative Action Office because he carried a book that had a Klan rally on its cover. (The book itself was critical of the Klan.) I’m thinking of the ’14 Rutgers protest that prompted Condoleezza Rice to cancel her commencement gig. I’m thinking of the ’15 flap at Wesleyan, which slashed funding for the school paper after it ran a guest column that criticized the tactics of Black Lives Matter. And so on.

    Some campuses are better than others. I’m based at the University of Pennsylvania, which doesn’t believe in cocooning; in fact, Lukianoff’s FIRE group rates Penn highly for its defense of disagreeable speech. Last month, after Penn protesters heckled a visiting speaker, CIA director John Brennan, they were admonished by the administration: “As you exercise your right to free expression, it is critical that you also respect the rights of others to express their ideas and thoughts. The freedom goes both ways.”

    True that. The appropriate response to the Trump chalkings is not to quiver in pain and plead for safety, but, rather, to chalk a superior oppositional message. Thomas Jefferson got it right two centuries ago, in his mission statement for the University of Virginia: “[W]e are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

    Meanwhile, it’s primary day in Indiana. Unless Ted Cruz wins this contest, Der Leader — buoyed by the endorsements of various Indiana jocks and jock coaches who know even less about governing than he does — will virtually clinch his historic nomination. Chalk that one.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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