Conservative columnist John Leo’s essay “Free Inquiry? Not On Campus” seems to shoot itself in the foot from the very beginning, hinging the entirety of his argument on what forms of speech censored (directly or indirectly) by colleges and universities would be allowable off of campus, according to the First Amendment. He goes so far as to smugly note that this censorship is a cause of students being more politically apathetic. However, many of his examples are actually from students themselves, from newspaper censorship to beating up the cohort of hate speech activists.
In this sense, the students are politically active…they simply not batting for Leo’s side. Despite his invocation of the First Amendment, Leo does not seem to consider the Declaration of Independence, and how it would factor into his hypothetical argument. Incidentally, his argument is hypothetical because universities, like other businesses, have some measure of control over who speaks or marches…Bill from Accounting would still be screaming about the First Amendment when he is fired for his loud speech about the evils of immigrants.
This example is not far from Leo’s truth, as one of his examples is students shutting down a speech by a member of the Minutement, a self-appointed task force who attempt to patrol the border themselves. Arguably, these individuals are dedicated to depriving others of their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, and are doing so by forming a vigilante mob that sidesteps the very government that Leo wishes would somehow intervene and allow them to speak. These are some of the circumstances that, at a governmental level, are just cause for a rebellion.
However, individuals are not governments…a simple fact that seems to elude Leo, as he assumes that every college that tries to prevent the inevitable riot from a hatemonger’s speech simply must be colluding with Congress to abridge the freedom of speech of said hatemongers. That the college might actually be attempting to preserve the life and liberty of its students seems the furthest thing from his mind. Perhaps most tellingly, Leo considers sexual harassment and discrimination as cases built simply built on hurt feelings, and thinks that any passionate discussion of ideals would invariably incorporate denigrating comments.
He zealously attacks concepts such as Affirmative Action without acknowledging that those policies owe their inception to the part of the Constitution that he doesn’t mention: the part that considered blacks to count as one third of a white person. He lauds conservative bake sales that charge less for women and minorities as ways of sticking it to the authorities, and seems to find it inconceivable that a horribly condescending reminder of racial inequity throughout the ages might constitute a form of harassment.
According to the Declaration of Independence, what necessitates rebellion is “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism. ” Leo’s examples are rife with messages and speakers that are deliberately offensive to women and minorities, and perversely seems to see these as conservatism striking back at liberal control. Yet the conservative viewpoint, as imagined by Leo, truly does amount to endless abuses intended to (again, quite tellingly) put women and minorities in their place.
If such actions are enough to warrant bloody rebellion, surely students yelling really loudly or setting off fire alarms to cut off hate speech means that the conservative “victims” got off lightly? Leo’s reverence for the Constitution is rooted in the idea of it as a civilizing force that created the greatest nation in the world; hopefully, it is only a matter of time when he realizes that the aftereffect of civilization is being civilized, and will stop shaking his head wondering why these mean liberals won’t let him offend women and minorities as much as he wishes to.