We have a strange transformation taking place on campus today. Back in the ‘60s, at Berkeley and elsewhere, students formed Free Speech Movements and struck down one propriety and norm after another.

Now, things have reversed. In a series of incidents, students have become the force of restriction. They targeted professors’ and guests’ speech and inquiry though vocal protests, publicity campaigns, and chilling investigations.

Today, we learn that a student group has filed an open-records request demanding that a lecturer at the University of Kansas turn over ten years (!) of emails. The reason: The lecturer runs the Center for Applied Economics, which receives funding from Koch Foundation.

Recently, we have witnessed many other intimidations:

  • Students at Michigan State demand that George Will be prohibited from speaking at a Fall commencement, terming him a “rape apologist”
  • Students at Berkeley insist that Bill Maher be disinvited from speaking at December graduation, terming him a “bigot”
  • Students at Penn invade a holiday party hosted by President Gutman and demanded that Penn “pay money to support Philadelphia schools”
  • Harvard students interrupt a Bank of America recruitment session
  • Muslim students at Yale protested a speech by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

There are many more such incidents, and the publicity surrounding them often turns to the politics and identities of the speakers and student groups.

But there is an undercurrent in these events that runs deeper than ideology. It is the basic human relationship between students and professors/administrators. Instead of interpreting the episodes in terms of right-wing and left-wing, or even in terms of free speech and censorship, we should apply ideas of authority and entitlement. (This brief commentary in Academe does just that). We see here a dynamic of respect giving way to disrespect, trust to suspicion. In that sense, the current rounds of disturbance are not an inversion of ’60-era protests. They are extensions of it.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things

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