Brown University, where I had a civil debate in 1980 with an advocate of conscription, had a shameful event last week. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was there to speak, but some thuggish people in the audience shouted him down and wouldn’t let him speak. As a result, others in the audience who presumably went there to hear Kelly didn’t get to.

The administrators of Brown University who failed to protect free speech–and Brown University property–should be ashamed of themselves.

Moreover, it’s quite conceivable that some of the people who went to hear Kelly speak attended, not just to hear him, but to ask him tough questions and maybe even argue with him. They didn’t get to because of the disgraceful behavior of the disrupters.

On his site Legal Insurrection, law professor William A. Jacobson tells of a professor who had a chance many years ago to hear George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, speak at Brown in 1966. Professor Ken Miller, then a young undergrad at Brown, writes:

A new campus group called “Open Mind” was formed. Once recognized by the University, it re-invited Rockwell to campus. Rockwell spoke to a packed house in Alumnae Hall. Multiple groups picketed his appearance, including dozens of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were then only in their 30s and 40s. The memories were fresh, and the scars were real. As I walked through the crowd with a few friends, one of the picketers came up to me and asked us why we wanted to hear such a “monster.” To underline the point, he rolled up his sleeve and pointed to the numbers tattooed on his forearm. We all knew where those numbers came from.

How far Brown has fallen. People then had the self-confidence to invite an actual Nazi and now the administration won’t protect a police commissioner.

Miller points out also that just by listening, he learned an interesting lesson:

Once inside, a hushed crowd listened to the full range of Rockwell’s charismatic style. He was charming, funny and, frankly, disarming. He knew how to break the tension in the crowd, telling us “the last time I was in Alumnae Hall, come to think of it, I wasn’t sitting. I was hanging onto a girl about half-stewed at a dance.” Everybody laughed, and I did, too. But as the evening wore on, I learned a lesson. True fascism doesn’t begin with the shouting, fist-shaking tyrants we see in newsreels of the 1930s. It enters with charm and wit. Its strategy is to beguile and divide, to offer easy answers to problems like crime and poverty. Blame them on the “others” — the blacks, the Jews, the Commies who are spoiling our otherwise virtuous society. It then promises to heal those lesions by cutting them out, figuratively at first, and then literally once the masses are firmly under control.

For the first time in my life, I understood the allure of fascism, the reason that “good people” could have supported the likes of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. I also understood why the notion that “it couldn’t happen here” is hopelessly naive. It could happen here, and it most certainly would happen if we forgot the lessons of history, lessons that Rockwell brought to life with a sinister smile that evening in Alumnae Hall. I’m glad I was there. I’m glad the talk was allowed to go on. And I’m glad Brown was an open campus where those lessons could be learned in the most personal way possible.

What a profound point! The only thing you learn by shouting people down is how to shout people down. On the other hand, you can learn a lot by listening.

I’m less impressed by the people at Hamilton College around the same time. Jacobson points out that they walked out en masse at the end of the speech. Obviously they had a right to do that and that was a peaceful protest. But had I been there, there would have been one person left in the audience and I would have got to ask him some questions.

I particularly liked the comment on Professor Jacobson’s site by “Zoomaster,” who wrote:

This is one of the things that baffles me most about the young and the senseless.

How can one know who one’s enemies are unless one knows exactly what one’s enemies say and what they stand for. There is no such thing as “aural cooties.” Just hearing a speech given by someone one does not like does not lead to automatic indoctrination, subjugation, and submission.

Grow up kids. There is a dangerous world “out there” beyond the hallowed walls. And there ain’t enough germicide around to protect you against the cooties. You’ve got to build up your immune system the hard way. Through exposure to all kinds of thoughts and philosophies and through re-dedication to the principles of freedom and liberty we find in the Founding Documents.