Illustration: Lindsey Jin

The rise of Donald Trump has brought a revival in public activism. Anyone paying attention to U.S. politics has likely noticed the surge in activism and protests across the nation, during and after the election season. Be it the Women’s March or the March for Science, the vast majority of these demonstrations have been peaceful displays. However, there have been a few notable instances where protests have gone too far, bringing with them disturbing results and implications.

Take the recent fiasco at the University of California (UC) Berkeley: in February, right-wing editor Milo Yiannopoulos had his speech cancelled when some fifteen hundred people protesting his event were joined by one hundred and fifty “By Any Means Necessary” (BAMN) left-wing militants [1]. Riots broke out, causing over $100 000 in damages, as police officers were attacked and properties vandalized. In April, a planned speech by right-wing media personality Ann Coulter was cancelled by the same university, for fear of campus safety, following similar demonstrations involving anti-fascist (antifa) protesters [2].

There are innumerable questions that these particular events bring up. For example, how hypocritical is it that BAMN, a group that was formed to fight for affirmative action [3], attacked police in a (successful) attempt to segregate and devalue those on the opposite end of the political spectrum? Doesn’t it seem just a tad fascist for an “anti-fascist” group to employ violence and fear-mongering to suppress someone whose ideas they disagree with?

The biggest problem here, however, is the implication this has on free speech on university campuses. By cancelling these two events, UC Berkeley set a dangerous precedent that devalues the ideas of those on the right and shows partiality to leftists. Are some far-right ideas that have come up recently just ‘fake news’ and factual nonsense? Yes. But the same can be said of some far-left ideas (although they have not had the ‘enviable’ position of showing up on the White House stage). Worse, it shows that universities are inclined to bow to pressure from disruptive, and sometimes extreme, members of the student body. And while student safety is inarguably the most important thing on a university campus, the lack of substantial effort by Berkeley to accommodate these speakers—who were invited by university-affiliated groups, no less—and to ensure that the events would proceed safely, is incredibly disappointing.

It is understandable that universities generally tend to lean to the political left in the social ideas they voice across campuses, and that this may have some impact on campus policy. However, this does not provide an excuse to attack and damage one of the most fundamental tenets of any university: the guarantee that all individuals can safely exchange and discuss their ideas. When they were first created, universities served to unite scholars of various backgrounds to share their perspectives and gain new insights without repercussions. This exchange of thought allowed people to question their own ideas and form better ones, or to further reinforce their own convictions and beliefs.

This move by Berkeley is akin to a proclamation that freedom of expression for everyone is no longer valued at institutions of higher learning. It is now just a relic of a freer educational past that gives universities today a license to coddle students with their own ideas and cement the restrictive boxes of political correctness into their minds. And if this is to be the case (and I desperately hope that it is not), then why even bother with physical universities? Online courses can convey plain facts just as well as—if not better than—physical seminars. After all, the last thing we need is for universities to become echo chambers that further reinforce the views already held by some of their students, without allowing for discussion, debate, and freedom of thought and opinion.

References

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/01/milo-yiannopoulos-uc-berkeley-event-cancelled

[2] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/04/25/uc-berkeley-riots-violence-looms-as-mayor-questioned-over-ties-to-extremist-group.html

[3] http://www.bamn.com/