Free speech and protest are at the core of our political system, no matter if the words are yelled or whispered. But the First Amendment does not confer a right to violent protest.
The Bill of Rights sits behind a thick plate of glass on a raised platform inside the dimly lit rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The document has faded so much the words are nearly indecipherable, but they retain their impact. When I saw what the archives call the “Charters of Freedom” while in Washington last week, I thought of recent events at The Evergreen State College.
Free speech and protest are at the core of our political system. Until my fellow Americans vote to give up their freedom of speech and protest, those faded words protect students’ rights to yell whatever they want at professors, the administration and their classmates.
But the First Amendment does not protect shoving others, menacing with baseball bats or other threats of violence. The students at this small, public liberal-arts school near the Washington state Capitol clearly have a right to protest institutional racism, as they’ve been doing all year. Incidents of physical violence have been few, and it should stay that way. Physically attacking others because you disagree with their words or their approach is more likely to send you to jail than advance your political cause.
Evergreen President George Bridges told The Seattle Times editorial board he has spent many uncomfortable hours listening to students the past few weeks. Of course he has. That’s his job. Bridges said he was never afraid of the protesters, but some others on campus have reported feeling threatened. Bridges said the university’s student discipline system is being applied to those who broke the university’s conduct code.
I’m perfectly fine with the student protesters making the college president uncomfortable. I don’t have an issue with them getting in the face of a professor they disagree with. I am not OK with other students feeling threatened by people patrolling the campus carrying baseball bats. Protest is part of the DNA of Evergreen but violence and threats of violence are not.
Bridges says he did his share of yelling at administrators while an undergraduate at the University of Washington. He acknowledges he was mean-spirited and said some awful things, including blaming President Charles Odegaard for causing the Vietnam War, but violence was not in Bridges’ political playbook.
The violence on Evergreen’s campus, in which no one was seriously hurt, pales in comparison with anonymous threats of gun violence on the campus called in to police last week. But it’s time for the protest leaders to decry the threats and physical attacks and use their words to draw attention to their cause and broker any necessary changes at the university.
Hopefully, someday everyone at Evergreen will be able to look back on this time as a deciding moment in their understanding of American democracy and what free speech means.
Bridges and the other administrators and professors on that campus have some work to do, as do the students. Both need to listen as loudly as they speak. No one should be silenced, even if others don’t agree with their tactics. Sometimes it takes some shouting and interrupting to be heard. The Bill of Rights is clear on this issue: it doesn’t matter whether you or anyone else agrees, they almost always have a right to speak.
If you marched for civil rights or against the war during the ’60s, please try to refrain from telling today’s college students the correct way to protest. If the books and movies from that era hold any truth, you made as many mistakes and were just as uninterested in hearing advice from anyone over 30.
The same advice applies to the trolls on social media, who have screamed louder and meaner than most people at Evergreen. Feel free to tweet and email your vitriol in my direction. Give the students and their teachers a break. It’s finals week, and they have schoolwork to finish.
Actually, everyone needs to take a break. There will be more time for debate and protest after the quarter is over. The problems of racism and inequity are not going away this week.