Last week, I had a firsthand experience with campus intolerance when some Canadian college students decided they didn't want me speaking at their school.
The Canadian Association for Equality, a group that champions a balanced approach to gender issues, including those affecting men, invited me to give a talk on gender and victimhood at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa.
Shortly before the first event, a comment urging violence against feminists at the University of Toronto was posted on an online forum. Amid an intense reaction to the threat, university administrators felt it was inadvisable to hold my event on campus; the venue was moved to a nearby hotel. One student activist wrote on a Tumblr blog that "chasing these misogynists off campus is a victory."
In Ottawa, where the talk went forward at St. Paul University, things were a bit more eventful. About a dozen protesters in red scarf masks gathered outside the building to chant slogans denouncing "rape apologist scum" (a slur hurled at people who talk such heresy as presumption of innocence). An organizer's invitation to the protesters to come in and attend the talk as long they promised to behave was scornfully rebuffed.
As the event was about to start, the fire alarm went off -- presumably pulled by a demonstrator -- which forced a brief evacuation. In the end, the police made the protesters move across the street and I was able to give my talk without further trouble. I fared better than some previous CAFE speakers, who were effectively shut down by students using a variety of methods -- fire alarms, loud music and chants just outside auditoriums, verbal harassment of attendees -- to fight what they regard as "hate speech."
The United States has a much more robust free speech tradition than Canada, which does not have an equivalent of the First Amendment and does have hate-speech laws. But "politically correct" campus intolerance in this country has emerged as a cause for serious concern as well, and not just among conservatives. The Atlantic, a premier liberal magazine and website, has published two major stories on the dangerous trend of students demanding to be "safe" from ideas they consider not just offensive but emotionally damaging.
President Barack Obama addressed the issue at a town-hall meeting last month when he warned against the notion that college students "have to be coddled and protected from different points of view." He said, "Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn't silence them by saying, 'You can't come because I'm too sensitive to hear what you have to say.' " How depressing that this even needs to be said.
Some left-wing commentators, such as Angus Johnston, a historian who teaches at CUNY and champions student activism, think current concerns about freedom of campus speech are a hypocritical attempt to silence campus protest. In a recent blog post, Johnston complains that speech defenders don't support "the rights of left-liberal students to speak intemperately or aggressively."
Yes, intemperate and unpleasant speech should be defended, whether it comes from left-wingers or, say, anti-abortion demonstrators. But Johnston gives away his game when he mocks the notion that campus speakers should not be "subjected to challenge or disruption." Challenge is good. But disruptions and protest tactics so aggressive as to cross the line into intimidation are not legitimate speech. They are ways to suppress speech, and they should be denounced by any liberal worthy of the name.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.