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The problem with campus mob rule

Angry students shouldn’t get to dictate university policy

In a fit of cowardice this week, Hampshire College, a small private liberal arts college in New England, cancelled a Second Amendment activist’s speech on its campus mere hours before it was to begin. The decision was made all the more bizarre by the fact that the school had approved of the speaker just a few days prior. According to campus officials, the event was “very controversial” and thus required “extra considerations and precautions.” Hence, the cancellation.

Leave aside for a moment the utter ineptitude of a college’s approving an event and then hastily cancelling it 48 hours later. Consider instead the absurdity of the reason for that cancellation: that the speaker is “controversial” and so constitutes some kind of logistical headache, possibly a dangerous one.

What Hampshire Colleges seems to be conceding is that campus officials have, in a very important sense, lost control of their campus. An individual coming to a college in order to speak about a constitutional right should not, in the strictly practical sense of the word, be “controversial,” inasmuch as the discussion of a constitutional right should not constitute a controversy. That it does—and to the extent that the college feels it necessary to cancel the speech due to a sense of “precaution”—says something bad about Hampshire College, both the people who run it and the individuals on the campus who apparently can’t be trusted to behave civilly in the event of a speech with which they disagree.

One gathers that Hampshire was concerned that angry students, furious over the thought of a gun activist appearing on campus, may have posed a danger to the speaker and the people who came to hear her speak. But how did we get to this point—how did it come to pass that student mobs feel confident in dictating the speaker policies of their college? We are here because more and more institutions of higher learning have started ceding that question to the students themselves. Rather than say, “If you pose a threat to anyone on campus, you face suspension and expulsion,” schools have instead bent over backwards to accommodate the mobs, instituting “considerations and precautions” to fend off the potential violence. It’s a band-aid over a bullet wound: campuses should reflexively be places of peace and order, not potential war zones where everyone has to worry about violence.

All of which is to say, if schools want to regain control of their campuses, they need to be prepared to take zero-tolerance approaches to violent and intimidating behavior from students. This is not hard. The alternative, in any event, is much worse: allow your campus policies to be dictated by fear, trepidation and potential mayhem. Maybe colleges and universities are okay with that. Then again, there is also the distinct possibility that the folks over at Hampshire College simply do not like Second Amendment activists. Either one seems likely in this case.

MORE: Yale disgraces itself by honoring participants in student mob

MORE: Angry mob shuts down Blue Lives Matter speech at Claremont McKenna College

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