Campus free-speech protests worry some

Martin Morse Wooster, an older, straight, white male libertarian does not want to tell young students how wonderful and privileged their lives are, and he certainly does not want to tell blacks, women or anyone else what to do.

But after reading about the time and energy some students at Oberlin College in Ohio spent on protesting -- and what they were protesting -- he is bothered on two fronts.

One is that the students were arguing that their protesting was taking up so much time that they could not finish writing papers, but that the time spent protesting should be taken into account in their grades.

Wooster, a senior fellow with the Washington-based libertarian think tank, the Capital Research Center, is worried that the students were not learning the skills needed to make their way through life, including the crucial skill of writing on deadline.

But his wider concern is free speech on campus.

Wooster was inspired to write a piece posted on the research center’s site after reading an investigation in the New Yorker magazine, authored by Nathan Heller.

That piece focused on Oberlin, and prompted Wooster to conclude that “today’s  students are burdened with so much doubt, angst and futility that one wonders how they get out of bed each morning.”

"I did not want to come across as an old guy telling young people what to do,” Wooster told the Higher Education Tribune. “In college I did a lot of fun things and did a lot of stupid things. But I did think it was a good idea to give some advice. I was really bothered about one student (who) spent so much time protesting (that he) did not want to write any papers."

But many of those protests, and much of the angst, are directed against people’s opinions and thoughts. In Wooster's  piece, he cited one telling anecdote as described to Heller.

Law-and-society major Aaron Pressman said he wants to be a public defender and that he admires the ACLU’s support of free speech.

He argued that an Oberlin sexual harassment policy should be more narrowly defined to protect free-speech rights.

Pressman recalls that one student came up to him and “started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion because I’m a white cisgender male … I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your people have never been oppressed. I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’”

Cisgender is an adjective “denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“I am a diehard advocate of free speech,” Wooster said, then mentioning various examples where it appears to be under attack, mostly if not wholly, he argues, from the left.

In a video that went viral, the libertarian Christina Hoff Sommers and Milo Yiannopoulos, of Breitbart News, shared a stage at the University of Massachusetts. It was a raucous evening, and included one woman who repeatedly screamed from the floor, much of it expletives.

She had a “total meltdown,” said Wooster, adding that Hoff Sommers is “not an unreasonable person.”

He added, “(Yiannopoulos) may be a jerk, but he has as much right to speak as you or I do. You do not have to go hear him.”

In another case, this time at Brown University, the left wing feminist Jessica Valenti was debating with Wendy McElroy, a libertarian who has questioned whether sexual assault and harassment is as widespread as it is sometimes claimed.

The debate ran the risk of "invalidating people's experiences" and "damaging" them, according to the college’s Sexual Abuse Task Force.

Wooster believes the assault on free speech is more prevalent on the left, and cited the appearance of Bernie Sanders at Liberty University. Both agreed it went well, and included a civil discussion, said Wooster.

“It is the left that is out to silence those who disagree with them,” he said.

Wooster speculates that the reason for those protests is that the students are cocooned through their earlier life, and only come across differing views when they arrive at college.


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Brown University Oberlin College

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