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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

The Only True 'Safe Space' Is Liberty and Freedom

Education, Culture Higher Ed, Culture & Society

This piece was excerpted from Mac Donald's introductory remarks at the Manhattan Institute’s Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner on May 9, 2016.

A college bureaucrat, gazing over this gathering, would undoubtedly conclude that she was in an “unsafe space.”

Luckily, our honoree tonight wouldn’t have it any other way. Now even for veteran observers of the narcissism that has engulfed American universities, these last six months have been hard to take .

“The march of speech codes continued through American campuses, jeopardizing free inquiry and placing unfettered power in the hands of university bureaucrats.”

The conceit that minority and female students are “unsafe” on college campuses has reached appalling proportions, threatening to obliterate any last connection between higher education and reality.

Where to start?

How about with the shrieking girl at Yale? If you haven’t seen the video of this incident count yourself lucky. A female student, part of a crowd of allegedly victimized black Yale students, screams at her cowering college master, and I have edited the following for a family audience: “Be quiet! Why the F— did you accept the master’s position! Who the F— hired you! You are disgusting!”

Now what provoked this student to such a fever pitch of incivility?

The master’s wife had sent out an email to students gently suggesting that they were capable of deciding for themselves what Halloween costumes to wear without guidance from Yale’s diversity bureaucrats. Hundreds of students rallied to demand that Yale fire the master and his wife.

At Emory University, students stormed the office of the president shouting “We are in pain!” What caused their anguish?

The sight of the words “Trump 2016” that had been chalked on walkways around campus. Now it is just possible that there are more than a few people in this very room who experience great pain contemplating the prospect of Trump 2016.

But they do not demand the removal of Trump political slogans; they argue over whether the Donald should be elected.

The Emory students, by contrast, wanted their president to find and punish the malefactors that had caused them to feel “unsafe.”

My personal favorite in this tsunami of self-pity comes from Princeton’s put-upon minority students, who proclaimed that they were “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” a phrase first used by Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who had picked cotton as a child on a Mississippi plantation and who was beaten for trying to vote.

Can we have a reality check here? Every American college student today, no matter his race or gender, is among the most privileged individuals in human history. Millions of Chinese students are at this very moment studying their butts off in the hope of gaining access to the intellectual resources that American students take for granted.

And being a Princeton or Yale student bears no resemblance- need I really say this?-to being a sharecropper in the Jim Crow South. And yet, virtually every college president grovels before delusional students who demand to shut down unorthodox viewpoints, by promising protection from unwanted speech and reparations for wholly nonexistent racism.

Now as surreal as the present college situation is, it would be far worse, if you can imagine that, without Harvey Silverglate and the organization that he created in 1999: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE.

Harvey is perhaps the last representative of a by–now nearly vanished species: the intellectually honest civil libertarian who believes in free speech for everyone.

A highly sought after criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer who had defended Vietnam protesters in the 1960s, Harvey noticed in the 1980s that something odd was happening on American college campuses: the explosion of a vast bureaucracy dedicated to stamping out supposed bigotry among students by imposing speech codes and thought controls.

“Today's campus rape kangaroo courts deny male defendants the opportunity to cross examine their accuser or try their case before a transparent and impartial fact-finder.”

In 1993, as Harvey will explain, he played a key role in the infamous water buffalo case at the University of Pennsylvania, the first time that the draconian campaign against wholly imaginary student racism caught the national attention.

Harvey assisted in the defense of Eden Jacobowitz, a freshman whom the University of Pennsylvania tried to expel for shouting “Shut up, you water buffalo” at a group of black sorority girls screaming and stomping outside of his window late at night.

The university claimed that Eden’s words violated its speech code against racial harassment, even though his utterance had nothing to do with race.

Harvey and his colleagues prevailed in that case, but the march of speech codes continued through American campuses, jeopardizing free inquiry and placing unfettered power in the hands of university bureaucrats.

In 1999, Harvey and Penn history professor Alan Kors created FIRE to fight the growing repression. Since then FIRE has won every lawsuit it has brought against college speech codes.

It has defended hundreds of students and professors against retaliation for their views, including New York’s own KC Johnson, a popular and courageous Brooklyn College history professor who was almost denied tenure because he had opposed a departmental mandate to hire a professor for no other reason than that she was female.

FIRE helped abolish a requirement that teacher education schools certify that their students possess a commitment to social justice as a condition of graduation. If you think that the current teaching profession is monolithically left-wing, imagine if it could weed out any candidate who believed, say, in constitutionally limited government.

And Harvey and FIRE have been at the forefront of efforts to bring fairness to grotesquely biased campus rape tribunals. Today’s campus rape kangaroo courts deny male defendants the opportunity to cross examine their accuser or try their case before a transparent and impartial fact-finder.

The university should be the one institution that fully understands the civilizational achievement that is Anglo-American due process; instead, it is the place where due process goes to die.

How essential is FIRE? During the water buffalo case, the press and the ACLU were on the side of free speech rights. An ACLU attorney who worked on the case said that he couldn’t wait every day to leave the University of Pennsylvania and return to the United States of America.

NBC’s John Chancellor complained that the “bozos” on American campuses were trying to destroy the English language. Now the ACLU and the press have virtually gone silent regarding the university’s assault on academic freedom, leaving FIRE as the only organization fighting to restore it.

“The campus totalitarians show no sign of slowing down… the only truly “safe space” is individual liberty and freedom.”

When Virginia Tech recently disinvited Manhattan Institute fellow Jason Riley from a speaking engagement, inadvertently conferring on him the highest academic honor you can receive in today’s topsy-turvy world, it was undoubtedly the prospect of a FIRE investigation that led the benighted bureaucrats to reverse themselves and reopen their invitation.

If fighting for academic enlightenment and maintaining an active legal practice were not enough, Harvey also devotes himself to exposing the abuses of federal criminal power by overzealous federal prosecutors and regulators, and even has a forthcoming book on the topic entitled Conviction Machine.

The campus totalitarians show no sign of slowing down, but fortunately for America, Harvey and FIRE understand that the only truly “safe space” is individual liberty and freedom.

This piece originally appeared at Heat Street

This piece originally appeared in HeatStreet