Opinion: Sad day for free speech

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Beloit College taught the wrong lesson by caving to protesters.

RIGHT ON CUE, Beloit College became a poster child to illustrate and justify President Trump's recent executive order relating to freedom of speech on college campuses.

The executive order may yet prove to be more symbolic than substantive and surely will be tested in court if enforced, but the point is well taken. The order requires a dozen federal agencies to tie grant money to colleges' compliance with protecting freedom of speech on their campuses. Trump's action was spurred by numerous well-publicized incidents across the country in which conservative speakers literally were chased off campuses - their presentations blocked - by over-the-top student protests while college officials meekly looked on.

Which brings us to how Beloit College handled - make that mishandled - student protests aimed at disrupting a scheduled appearance by Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater paramilitary company and a well-known supporter of conservative causes.

THE FACT THAT students showed up with the intention of being loud and obnoxious to the point of preventing anyone else from being heard should have been about as surprising to college officials as the sun rising each day in the east.

It's what happens on college campuses these days, when the groupthink mindset takes hold and protesters believe they have the right to silence other viewpoints.

By the way, let's make this clear: We defend the right of the students to protest the appearance and the views of Erik Prince. Look at the top of this page. The First Amendment also guarantees the right to peaceably assemble - that means the right to gather in dissent.

We emphasize the word peaceably, though, for a reason. The Constitution does not say the people can mob up with the intent of intimidating others. As the old saying goes, "Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose."

INSTITUTIONS OF higher learning fail miserably if they do not accommodate and enforce both of those phrases within the First Amendment, the right to exercise free speech and the right to assemble peaceably in dissent. Properly managed, these two practices are not mutually exclusive.

Prince had the right to accept the invitation of the Young Americans for Freedom student group and to speak to those who wanted to hear what he had to say. When protesters essentially took over Moore Lounge in Pearsons Hall and blocked those First Amendment rights, they were operating outside the law - both in terms of disorderly conduct and violating the spirit of the Constitution.

By caving in and canceling Prince's appearance, Beloit College officials sent an unmistakable message to the young people they are supposed to be teaching: You'll get your way, Constitution be damned, if you throw a tantrum.

It's not the first time Beloit College has failed to stand up for the First Amendment, but it should be the last time. In a statement, the college did condemn the protesters' behavior. Such after-the-fact high-mindedness rings hollow, though, because when the time to stand up for principle came the college instead stood down. The board of trustees should take up the matter with the purpose of insisting on better strategies for the future.

THERE'S NOTHING MORE basic in developing the minds of young people than instilling respect for others.

America will not become a more civil and open society by deluding ourselves - liberal or conservative - into believing some of us have the right to silence the rest of us. We do not lift up the principles of tolerance by being intolerant.

Beloit College could have taken a stand for freedom, respect and, yes, the human rights of all, including those with whom we may disagree.

Instead, Beloit College kneeled to a mob.

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