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Understanding the Role of Free Speech on Campus

Laura Schwartz and Josh Blackman at event

Josh Blackman, a law professor and self-described libertarian, recently spoke about free speech on campus and in higher education at an event organized by AU School of Public Affairs' Lara Schwartz who is leading The Project on Civil Discourse.

Blackman speaks at about 50 law schools a year, and most visits are uneventful. But he described an event in March, at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), where he faced protesters.

When Blackman arrived at Queens College, CUNY, students holding signs with messages such as “Don’t Give Oppressors a Platform” lined the hallways leading up to the classroom for his guest lecture. Pamphlets had been distributed on campus that Blackman said misrepresented his positions on immigration and other issues as extreme. Blackman showed a video at the AU event that captured the confrontation.

“I didn’t have any problem with the protest, but I was somewhat nervous about how it would go down,” said Blackman, an associate professor of law at the South Texas College of Law Houston and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Protesters heckled him and lined the perimeter of the classroom, including some students standing behind him at his lectern.

“Your concern isn’t only about your ability to speak, but it’s also about your physical safety,” he said.

Blackman said he remained quiet and waited, hoping the students would run out of energy. Campus administrators addressed the crowd, and he was introduced about 20 minutes late. He began by using some humor to diffuse the tension and tried to engage the protesters in a dialogue.

“My goal was to find some kind of common ground with them,” said Blackman, who said that he kept a civil demeanor, and the protesters eventually left with no physical altercations.

Other students filled the room to listen. Instead of delivering his prepared remarks, Blackman fielded questions for about an hour.

“It was an absolutely surreal experience,” he said.

CUNY allows students to protest, but not to prevent anyone from speaking. In this episode, no one was disciplined.

When asked by a security guard at the college about his “exit strategy,” Blackman answered that he had none and was concerned about what could happen after the event. He believes there should have been some consequences for the students’ disruption but doesn’t want a “culture where students feel chilled” about expressing themselves, either. Perhaps, he suggested, there should be basic rules to physically separate the protesters from a speaker.

Although high-profile, conservative speakers, such as Ann Coulter, for example, are often the subject of protests. Blackman encourages colleges to allow diverse viewpoints to be heard and to cover the additional security costs. Hosting people from both ends of the political spectrum gives students a chance to ask questions and challenge their positions.

“When you have idiots come to campus, people can see they are idiots, and they don’t want to follow them,” Blackman said. “On the flip side, when you ban and censor them, it creates a mystique.”

Schwartz says students can take away lessons from how Blackman handled the situation and tried to educate.

“He made a bunch of decisions that good, smart professionals do, and that’s what we are supposed to be doing at AU,” Schwartz said. “Whatever you want to do and be, your decisions about how you use your voice and get your message across, how to listen and to deal with a room being different than you thought it would be – those are all good skills to know.”