The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

John McWhorter on the Columbia Protests


An excerpt from his column in yesterday's N.Y. Times:

Last Thursday, in the music humanities class I teach at Columbia University, two students were giving an in-class presentation on the composer John Cage. His most famous piece is "4'33"," which directs us to listen in silence to surrounding noise for exactly that amount of time.

I had to tell the students we could not listen to that piece that afternoon because the surrounding noise would have been not birds or people walking by in the hallway but infuriated chanting from protesters outside the building. Lately that noise has been almost continuous during the day and into the evening, including lusty chanting of "From the river to the sea." Two students in my class are Israeli; three others, to my knowledge, are American Jews. I couldn't see making them sit and listen to this as if it were background music.

I thought about what would have happened if protesters were instead chanting anti-Black slogans or even something like "D.E.I. has got to die," to the same "Sound Off" tune that "From the river to the sea" has been adapted to. They would have lasted roughly five minutes before masses of students shouted them down and drove them off the campus. Chants like that would have been condemned as a grave rupture of civilized exchange, heralded as threatening resegregation and branded as a form of violence. I'd wager that most of the student protesters against the Gaza war would view them that way. Why do so many people think that weekslong campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel's very existence are nevertheless permissible? …

Today's protesters don't hate Israel's government any more than yesterday's hated South Africa's. But they have pursued their goals with a markedly different tenor — in part because of the single-mindedness of antiracist academic culture and in part because of the influence of iPhones and social media, which inherently encourage a more heightened degree of performance. It is part of the warp and woof of today's protests that they are being recorded from many angles for the world to see. One speaks up.

But these changes in moral history and technology can hardly be expected to comfort Jewish students in the here and now. What began as intelligent protest has become, in its uncompromising fury and its ceaselessness, a form of abuse.

As our readers may gather from my past posts, I don't think that the protests should be viewed as not "permissible" based on their viewpoint, though I do think that a university can reasonably limit extended loud protests audible from classrooms, whether what's being chanted is "from the river to the sea" or "abortion is genocide" or "Hare Krishna" or "Go Bruins!" But in any case, McWhorter's perspective, which is more about campus culture rather than law, struck me as worth noting.