Opinion: Yale heckling is bad. State censorship? Worse.

The Sterling Law Building photographed on October 2, 2018 houses the Yale Law School in New Haven.

The Sterling Law Building photographed on October 2, 2018 houses the Yale Law School in New Haven.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

Free speech in schools is under assault from both the left and the right. Ironically, neither realize that they are trying to do the same thing: Suppress messages they don’t like. Both are inconsistent with what should be a core value of educational institutions to allow all ideas and views to be expressed.

Incidents at Yale Law School and UC Hastings College of Law, involving progressive students trying to keep invited conservative speakers from addressing their audiences, have renewed attention on how the “heckler’s veto” can be a threat to free speech principles.

There is no doubt that freedom of expression on a campus, and academic freedom as a principle, would be rendered meaningless if protestors and dissenters had a recognized right to shout down speakers who participate in authorized campus events. However, these challenges to a culture of free expression are trivial compared to efforts by a number of Republican state legislatures to direct how race and gender are taught in public schools and colleges.

Most of these bills emerge from a recently supercharged effort by Republican officials — including a number who participated in the confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson — to condemn certain ideas that they claim emerge from “critical race theory” and transgender rights activism.

For example, in Alabama, House Bill 8 would bar public K-12 schools and public institutions of higher education from teaching, instructing or training any student to adopt or believe certain concepts relating to race or sex. House Bill 9 would bar any teaching or training designed to lead individuals to “adopt or believe divisive concepts.”

In Alaska, House Bill 330 would prevent colleges from persuading or attempting to indoctrinate a student to adopt or affirm certain ideas related to “sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.”

Similar bills are pending in Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Each of these bills was sponsored by a Republican officeholder.

In Florida, a bill that recently passed the House and Senate bars public colleges from adopting any instructional materials that espouse, promote or compel belief in certain ideas about race and gender. It also prohibits educators (including college faculty) from subjecting “any student or employee to training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels such student or employee to believe” those same ideas, including ideas about the relevance of past racial injustice.

Collectively these bills represent a sweeping attempt to restrict what can be read, taught and discussed at colleges and universities. It is unclear what would be deemed speech that causes one to “adopt or believe” particular ideas. Arguably, all exposure to views can cause some to adopt them.

Some of these laws say that students could not be asked to read materials that espouse the view that one race or sex is superior to another, which (among other things) would prevent exposure to many basic documents of American history, the history of political theory or a great deal of literature. Students could never learn about the arguments defending slavery or Southern succession.

Prohibitions against arguments that advocate for favorable treatment based on a person’s race or sex would make it impossible to debate basic topics such as affirmative action. If passed, these bills might make it impossible for psychologists to study the sources of racist attitudes and behaviors. They could ban faculty from exposing students to arguments central to an understanding of feminism, race studies or the rights of transgender persons.

In other words, these bills would fundamentally undermine the core mission of colleges and universities, which is to generate new knowledge, preserve inherited knowledge and empower students to critically analyze competing ideas.

Many individuals on the right who are quick to criticize students who attempt to silence individual speakers are unacceptably silent on the more sweeping threats to freedom of thought and expression represented by these systematic partisan assaults on teaching and learning.

Similarly, those who support the use of the hecklers’ veto by student protestors are depriving themselves of the arguments necessary to resist these Republican bills.

Many of the protestors claim that colleges and universities should not tolerate speech that is considered hateful, racist, sexist, or otherwise divisive. But this is precisely the same justification offered by those who are sponsoring these anti-teaching, anti-learning bills.

The student protestors and their allies would undoubtedly make the case that they are opposing truly bad ideas while the Republican legislators are opposing important ideas. But that is not how censorship works. Once one grants that administrators and other officials should have the authority to censor and punish bad ideas, there is no predicting who will be the target of such repression.

In fact, based on the history of free speech in the United States as well as these contemporary efforts, there is every reason to predict that the people most vulnerable to censorship will be progressive voices. The left should strongly embrace free speech values because the left might have the most to lose if those values are eroded.

Howard Gillman is chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, and Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of Berkeley Law. They are co-chairs of the national advisory board of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.