College students who should know better

When I wrote a column for my college paper back when talking pictures were relatively new, I went to a movie on campus where members of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity had instructed their pledges to make their presence known by setting off alarm clocks during the film.

The movie they chose was Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” so I thought it appropriate to critique their childish hazing prank by quoting from his play within the play and chose the scene in which the prince of Denmark was instructing actors not to strut and bellow on the stage and thereby “imitate humanity so abominably.”

The pledges found my (or Shakespeare’s) comment offensive and the next day in the dining hall, I was serenaded by the pledges with a “Happy birthday” adaptation, called “Happy Buffalo to you,” a signal that I would soon be carried to the nearby Buffalo Creek and thrown in.

This was a campus tradition reserved for fraternity brothers who had given their pins to their girl friends but a less benign exception was made in my case and I was quickly seized and carried to the creek and tossed in in retaliation for my free, unpopular speech.

It was the first, but not the last time I would write about college students interfering with the rights of others and, in most cases, claiming they had a First Amendment right to do so — expressing one’s free speech at the expense of others.

The first television editorial I ever wrote came in 1968, at a time when the Federal Communications Commission was threatening to suspend or take away the licenses of broadcasters who failed to live up to the requirement that they broadcast “in the public interest,” which included providing adequate time for news, discussions of important issues and even editorials, with time provided for opposing views.  Needless to say, they don’t do that anymore.

The editorial criticized students at the University of Massachusetts who heckled then Vice President Hubert Humphrey off the stage for his support of President Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam. Humphrey would unsuccessfully oppose Richard Nixon for president that year, mainly because of his failure to break with the Johnson war policy early enough in the campaign.

The editorial is no longer with us but I believe it included one of my favorite references to the First Amendment — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ reminder that free speech includes more than freedom for what we want to hear:

“The principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.”

Since Humphrey was heckled off the stage in Amherst 64 years ago, college students, who should know better — or be taught better — have only grown less tolerant of the thought they hate.

A very recent example comes from Yale.

On March 10, approximately 100 Yale students prevented the school’s conservative Federalist Society chapter from presenting the views of Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right wing group opposed to gay rights.  Waggoner was appearing with Monica Miller of the liberal American Humanist Society, who was offering an opposing view.

But as Waggoner was being introduced, the students began to shout her down and continued to do so even after being escorted from the room, standing outside in the hall, shouting and pounding on the walls. The speakers eventually made some remarks but Waggoner then had to be escorted off the campus by Yale police, according to the Washington Post.

This would have been disgusting for any group of students, but these weren’t just college kids. They were law students. At this moment, the Yale Law School has four of its graduates on the Supreme Court, along with Harvard, and the two law schools will retain the tie when Harvard Law graduate Stephen Breyer is succeeded by Harvard Law graduate Ketanji Brown Jackson.  (The ninth justice, Amy Coney Barrett went to Notre Dame.  Over the centuries, Harvard Law has sent 281 graduates to the Court, Yale, 241.)

D.C. Circuit Senior Judge Laurence Silberman had an interesting reaction, sending an email to every federal judge in the nation reminding them that since “all federal judges are presumably committed to free speech,” they “should carefully consider whether any student (among the Yale demonstrators) should be disqualified for potential clerkships.”

Silberman, you may want to know, is a Republican appointed to the second highest court by Ronald Reagan. Before he became a judge, he got some interesting experience in respecting differing points of view as an acting attorney general in the embattled Nixon administration during Watergate. It was an awkward position, he recalled, “simultaneously carrying out President Nixon’s agenda and supporting those who were vigorously prosecuting him.”

He is, by the way, a graduate of Harvard Law School.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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