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Colleges Have Gone Off the Deep End. There Is a Way Out.

I had my head in a law book when I heard the drums. That was the sound of the first campus protest I’d ever experienced. I’d come to Harvard Law School in the fall of 1991 as a graduate of a small, very conservative Christian college in Nashville. Many of my college classmates had passionate religious and political commitments, but street protest was utterly alien to the Christian culture of the school. We were rule followers, and public protest looked a bit too much like anarchy for our tastes.

But Harvard was different. The law school was every bit as progressive as my college was conservative, and protest was part of the fabric of student life, especially then. This is the era when a writer for GQ magazine, John Sedgwick, called the law school “Beirut on the Charles” because it was torn apart by disputes over race and sex. There were days when campus protests were festive, almost celebratory. There were other days when the campus was seething with rage and fury.

That first protest was in support of faculty diversity, and it was relatively benign. I walked outside and followed the sound of the drums. A group of roughly 100 protesters were marching in front of the law school library, and soon they were joined by an allied group of similar size from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. I watched as they danced, sang and listened to speeches by student activists and sympathetic professors. That first protest had an angry edge, but it was also completely peaceful and endlessly fascinating to a kid from a small town in Kentucky who’d never seen a drum circle before.

But things soon got worse, much worse. Protests got more unruly, and student activists got more aggressive. The entire campus was in a state of conflict. In Sedgwick’s words, students were “waging holy war on one another.” Small groups of students occupied administrative offices, and angry activists shouted down their political opponents in class and often attempted to intimidate them outside of class. I was shouted down repeatedly, and twice I received disturbing handwritten notes in my campus mailbox in response to my anti-abortion advocacy. My student peers told me to “go die.”

Watching the protests and experiencing the shout-downs changed the course of my career. I was both enthralled by the power of protest and repulsed by the efforts to silence dissenters. Given the immense cultural influence of American higher education, I agreed with the Supreme Court’s famous words in the 1957 case Sweezy v. New Hampshire: “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.” Those words, combined with my own negative encounters at Harvard, helped define my legal career. From that point forward, I would defend free speech.

It’s been more than 30 years since that first campus protest, and over that time I’ve seen countless protests, I’ve defended countless protesters — and I’ve even been protested against at several schools. In the course of those cases and confrontations, I’ve learned that the issue of campus protest is remarkably complex and that campus culture is at least as important as law and policy in setting the boundaries of debate.

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