The latest exemplars of this misguided faction are students at Wesleyan University, a highly selective liberal arts school with a student-to-faculty ration of 8 to 1. Simply put, these activists are unwittingly harming Black Lives Matter, undermining liberal values, and mistreating fellow students who’ve done nothing wrong. Their error is rooted in an increasingly common misunderstanding of power in America. And Wesleyan’s student newspaper, The Argus, is their primary target.
Last week, its opinion section published an op-ed that critiqued the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive?” the author asked. “Does it have the potential for positive change?” As he saw it, “They need to stand with police units that lose a member, decrying it with as much passion as they do when a police officer kills an unarmed civilian.”
He declared that insofar as the movement vilifies cops, “then I will not support the movement, I cannot support the movement. And many Americans feel the same. I should repeat, I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists.”
The column provoked fury––and not because it had a few factual errors.
In response to it, scores of students began trying to strong-arm the newspaper. They began by seizing its issues and throwing them into recycling bins as soon as they were distributed on campus. Then, “during a Sunday night forum held by the university’s student government, the Wesleyan Student Assembly, a petition was introduced to boycott and revoke funding of the 147-year-old paper,” the Boston Globe reports.
The petition called for new limits on the newspaper’s autonomy and declared that student activists will keep “recycling” copies unless their demands are met. (The newspaper readily agreed to various racial-diversity demands, including the publication of an issue without any white writers, but is loath to surrender its editorial independence.)
As a frequent, public critic of law-enforcement abuses at the national, state, and local levels, I have particular contempt for the action of these censorious students: They are undermining the very norm that prevents police officers and their supporters from responding to articles of mine that they don’t like by stealing The Atlantic from newsstands or targeting its website with denial of service attacks. And of course, they are holding the newspaper to a bizarre standard. As a staffer put it, to penalize the paper for publishing an unpopular opinion “sets a dangerous precedent in which the difficult, messy work of having to argue against... points is set aside in favor of simply trying to make sure those points are not heard.”
The contradiction at the core of these activists’ behavior: they characterize themselves as marginalized voices even as they resort to force to achieve their ends.