Campus Free Speech: In the “arena of ideas” a fair playing field needs defended (commentary)

Marco Rubio Minnesota Campaign Chairman, Jeff Johnson

I’m old enough to remember when colleges prided themselves on exposing young people to different and conflicting viewpoints and encouraging a vigorous debate. Unfortunately, a lot has changed on campus in the past couple decades—and not for the better.

A recent study by the Brookings Institute, revealed a chilling new trend of hostility towards free speech on college campuses. The study found that 19% of college students deemed it acceptable to use physical violence to silence a controversial speaker. Additionally, 50% of students said that it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker they find “offensive or hurtful” who comes to speak at a college campus.

And it’s not just hypothetical; conservative speakers are being shut down or attacked on a regular basis on our campuses.

A few examples from just this year:  Manhattan Institute scholar Heather McDonald was shouted down during a speech at Claremont McKenna College and forced to escape the campus under police escort.  Author Charles Murray was shouted down at Middlebury College and the professor who was escorting him was physically attacked and sent to the hospital.  Blogger Milo Yiannopoulos cancelled his speech at UCLA amid violent protests.  And most recently, U.C. Berkeley (the home of the “free speech movement” of the 1960’s) spent nearly $600,000 to essentially lock down the campus amidst violent protests over a speech by author Ben Shapiro.

Whatever your view of conservative speakers or their politics, I would hope everyone could agree that these examples of intolerance and violence – regardless of the victim – are inexcusable.

I recently got the opportunity to address College Republicans at the University of Minnesota. (Yes, there are conservatives at the U).  I was struck by both the large number of students who attended and the depth and clarity they had on many issues – including free speech.

Unfortunately, I learned that many conservative college students in Minnesota face constant scorn, ridicule and actual threats when they express views that are counter to liberal orthodoxy. In the face of this, these students are standing up for their principles rather than giving in to intolerance.  Those of us who believe in the value of debate and the vigorous discussion of opposing ideas should be very proud of them.

One of the bedrocks of my campaign for governor is to protect and defend the rights found in the Constitution. As governor, I’ll vigorously defend the right to free speech, whether liberal or conservative – especially at our publicly funded universities.  

Jeff Johnson