Claremont McKenna College recently suspended three students for a year and two others for a semester for their protest of Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald, author of The War on Cops and vocal critic of Black Lives Matter.
Claremont McKenna has taken a very harsh approach. This administrative action could have a chilling effect on future protests. Every student should have the ability to counter offensive, reprehensible speech with their own criticism.
But the school is not rebuking all students who exercise their First Amendment rights—only those who choose to prevent others from assembling and speaking. And they're not denying students the ability to appeal or subjecting them to an arbitrary process: sanctions are decided by a three-person panel, and students may have as little or as much participation in the investigation process as they want.
And besides, how should a college clarify its commitment to free speech?
In early April, protesters blocked entrances to the auditorium where Mac Donald was slated to speak. Since nobody could get through to the event, she spoke to an empty room and livestreamed her speech as students pounded on doors and windows, shouting and chanting.
Mac Donald's academic conclusions are controversial. In a Fox segment following the protests, she summarized the core ideas in her book. "There is no epidemic of racially-biased police shootings, the Black Lives Matter narrative is completely false, and there are thousands of law-abiding residents of minority communities who are desperate for more police protection."
In her livestreamed speech, she challenged Black Lives Matter's premise "that the police are the greatest threat facing young black men today," while clarifying that "every police shooting of an unarmed civilian is a stomach-churning tragedy."
With its disciplinary action, Claremont administrators have sent a message that illiberal shutdown tactics are not tolerated on campus. In an official statement, college officials concluded "the blockade breached institutional values of freedom of expression and assembly. Furthermore, this action violated policies…that prohibit material disruption of college programs and created unsafe conditions in disregard of state law."
Several of the students who received suspensions graduated in May, so their degrees are being withdrawn for one year. Fellow students and activists criticized the decision because of the impact it might have on the students' job prospects. Attorney Nana Gyamfi, who is representing the suspended students, called Claremont's decision "cruel and unusual punishment."
Physically blocking people from hearing the ideas of others—even those viewed as apologists for cops—creates an environment where free speech simply can't thrive. Heather Mac Donald is an academic, not a professional provocateur. Her intellectual value must be considered stronger someone like a Milo Yiannopoulos. And she concedes in her speeches there are major issues with policing in the United States, and that a legacy of racial animosity toward law enforcement lingers on.
Claremont is right to make it abundantly clear that even disagreeable speech deserves to be heard and debated. And while student protests of this kind do not compare to outright government censorship of speech, it's startling to see these millennials barricading doors so their views won't be challenged.