The Editorial Board: Free speech doesn’t include the right to shut down debate on campus | Editorial

College is supposed to be a time for intellectual exploration, for having one’s ideas challenged and for trying to see things through the eyes of others.

Those were not the values on display at the University at Buffalo on April 7, when student protesters tried to drown out the voice of a conservative commentator.

Allen West, a former congressman from Florida and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, was invited to speak by a conservative club on campus, Young Americans for Freedom. His talk was titled “America is Not Racist.” One can debate whether that title was meant to provoke thought or animus, but student protesters at UB overreacted.

Students began picketing that afternoon, carrying signs in the student union building with slogans including “Racism is real” and “No justice, no peace.” Some students demanded that West’s talk be canceled.

Peaceful protest is a form of free speech, protected under the First Amendment. However, chanting and shouting over the speaker so he could not be heard, or making threats, is going too far.

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Therese Purcell, president of the UB chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, told The News that after West’s talk she was forced to hide in a men’s bathroom after being chased by a group of protesters. She said another group leader was punched and kicked.

UB said its campus police was investigating those incidents. UB officers were also looking into threats made against the protesters on the social media app Yik Yak.

“If they keep yelling it’s going to become target practice,” one post said. All posts to Yik Yak are anonymous.

Both the protests and the online threats reflect what’s happening across American society, where political polarization spills into nearly every aspect of our lives and social media fans the flames. If someone disagrees with you, they must be arguing in bad faith. Opposing political views are dismissed as hate speech.

Of course, racism exists in America. UB’s student protesters were objecting to the premise of the speaker’s talk, but were unwilling to give him a fair hearing.

A statement from the university said it does not take a position on opinions expressed by visitors, adding that “UB stands by its commitment to upholding its core values of diversity, inclusion and mutual respect at all times.”

If students wish to attend a university that defends those values – and they should – they cannot ignore the part about mutual respect.

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