One-and-a-Half Cheers for Claremont McKenna

Rachelle Peterson

Rachelle Peterson's article originally appeared in RealClear Education.

Free speech requires regular enforcement. That’s why Claremont McKenna College’s decision to punish seven speech obstructers is—for the most part—worth celebrating.

On April 6, 170 people marched to Claremont McKenna’s Athenaeum, disassembled a fence newly built to restrain protests and blocked the entrances. Claremont’s security officers failed to control the crowd. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Heather Mac Donald, scheduled to address a live audience regarding her book, “The War on Cops,” was forced to speak to a camera.

Months later, Claremont announced it has identified twelve students as protest participants, of which it formally charged ten and punished seven. The college will suspend three students for one year, suspend two for one semester and place another two on “conduct probation.” A three-member panel determined the severity of discipline “based on the nature and degree of leadership in the blockade, the acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility, and other factors.”

Holding seven people responsible for the conduct of 170 seems to fall short of the ordinary standards of justice. But perhaps Claremont found the ringleaders.

Still, the presence of any discipline at all marks a refreshing homage to the ideals of free speech and civility. Shortly after the event, College President Hiram Chodosh acknowledged protesters had engaged in behavior that “violates College policy” and promised they “will be held accountable”—words that on many colleges stand as mere parchment barriers to violence. National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood wrote to President Chodosh, urging him to take steps to protect free speech and show the Claremont community that such intolerance is inappropriate. Chodosh never responded, but congratulations to him for following through and enforcing the rules under his charge.

Few of the recent campus outrages have resulted in accountability for the perpetrators. In February, at the University of California-Berkeley, a 1,500-person mob prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. Masked Molotov-cocktail throwing rioters assaulted bystanders, lit fireworks and smashed windows. Berkeley officials announced they “condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence and unlawful behavior,” and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks vowed, “We will not stand idly by while laws or university policies are violated, no matter who the perpetrators are.” But campus police arrested only one agitator that night. There have been no reports of students punished. (In April, when a Berkeley event featuring Ann Coulter was scheduled, then canceled, then reinstated, police did arrest five protesters and confiscate multiple weapons.)

Middlebury College recently made a stunt of handing out wrist slaps after students shut down a speech by Charles Murray, injured his interlocutor Middlebury professor Alison Stanger, and rocked Murray’s car as he attempted to leave. The college disciplined 67 students. The strongest punishment? A mark on students’ records. Some received even milder sentences, such as a disciplinary letter that would be removed from their records at semester’s end. All this President Laurie Patton hailed in the Wall Street Journal as “The Right Way to Protect Free Speech on Campus.”

At the Claremont protests, some mob members were students of other colleges within the Claremont consortium. Claremont McKenna College says it has referred evidence of these students’ misbehavior to their respective deans. It remains to be seen whether they will respond with disciplinary measures.

For the moment, Chodosh stands out as a president who has actually enforced some rules. In the wake of campus protests nationwide to which campus authorities repeatedly caved, power-hungry student activists have grown inebriated with the appearance of their victory over docile administrators. President Chodosh should be praised for standing against this tide.

But we should also remember that Claremont McKenna’s attempts to keep order at Heather Mac Donald’s talk were feeble. It deployed a campus safety team supplemented with only two Claremont Police Department officers. They were overwhelmed within minutes. And the punishments fall short of strong deterrence. One suspended student, it is rumored, may have graduated this spring. Why did Claremont wait until after graduation to issue suspensions? Why did it not turn to the other punishments authorized by the official Student Conduct Process, such as fines?

President Chodosh’s reaction immediately following the protests seemed to imply that shunting Mac Donald off to a camera was a successful backup plan: Because 250 people had managed to watch Mac Donald’s talk via live-stream, and many others have seen her talk since it was posted online, he declared that “the effort to silence her voice effectively amplified it to a much larger audience.”

Perhaps Chodosh has now learned his lesson. Two years ago, when the college erupted in protests over race and inequality, he responded by capitulating to students’ demands. He declared the college a safe space and idly watched a dean endure harassment and then resign over allegations she was insensitive. At a moment when Black Lives Matter protesters nationwide were elbowing into college presidents’ offices for sit-ins, Chodosh actually invited protesters to camp out.

Restraining rule-breaking students ought not to require special courage. The turmoil at Claremont and elsewhere was entirely avoidable. Colleges have been neglecting their basic responsibilities for a long time, trading intellectual diversity for political conformity. Is it any wonder that students now feel entitled to erupt in self-righteous anger at the first sign of real intellectual disagreement?

Students who learned at orientation to respect intellectual differences would not grow violent at the sight of a speaker they disliked. Perhaps if fewer classes extolled political activism and championed instead the pursuit of truth, colleges would not need to call out the police. Administrators and professors should regularly defend—not merely declaim—the importance of intellectual freedom.

So one-and-a-half cheers for Claremont McKenna College. President Chodosh’s newfound courage is a step in the right direction. May it be the first of many.

Image: Student Demonstration (44) by Philippe Leroyer // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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