Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will speak on "Constitutional Interpretation" at Amherst College today, and his reception won't be a merry one. Sixteen Amherst professors, including most of the law department, published a letter in the student newspaper last week announcing their refusal to engage Justice Scalia in debate or dialogue. The Justice, according to the professors, engages in "vitriolic name-calling" and does not subscribe to the "liberal ideas of constructive disagreement and debate." By boycotting his lecture, they wrote, they would avoid lending their "tacit endorsement of this man's presence on campus."
Later, drawing on the example of their professors, student groups, including the Pride Alliance, the Feminist Alliance, and College Democrats, decided that they too would adopt sensationalism. During Justice Scalia's lecture, according to their official "instructions," members of these groups will wear black armbands to symbolize their mourning over the Justice's decisions. Other groups will wave homemade signs during the lecture, stand in protest, and chant slogans.
But at no point will these students ask questions or engage in dialogue with Justice Scalia. Why not? "While it is tempting to assume that a strongly worded question may appear damaging, it is important to remember that Justice Scalia is a legal scholar with many years' experience and an expert speaker. Attempts to attack Justice Scalia will likely appear rude or wrong."
After the students' performance and the Justice's lecture, students will be invited back to a "debriefing," where they "hope to engage in an intelligent discussion explaining the motives and implications of [the] speech." The star guests at this "intelligent discussion," will besurprise, surprisethe faculty members who first announced the boycott. How those professors who did not attend the lecture could explain its motives or implications is unclear.
"The right to engage in the free exchange of ideas" without threat of violence or retaliation, as Amherst's Statement of Student Rights puts it, appears only to extend to those ideas championed by the left. Sarah Weddington, who argued the winning side in Roe v. Wade, got the royal treatment during her speech at Amherst last year. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, called President Bush a "moron" to loud applause in a speech at Amherst on September 11, 2001. (Any condemnation of Ehrenreich's "vitriolic name-calling" from the Amherst faculty went unreported.) The College Democrats will even roll out the red carpet for Al Sharpton later this semester.
The Amherst case is symptomatic of a larger assault on free speech taking place on today's college campuses. American academics, sequestered from the real world, have redefined the acceptable scope of campus dialogue. As a consequence, political science and law courses at Amherst, as well as elsewhere, begin with cultural and moral relativism and deconstructionism as incontestable premises. Legitimate discourse, in other words, begins after the acceptance of a radical left agenda.
These are the same academics who complain that their ideas are censored and repressed by the outside world. But conservatives who disagree are "divisive," and their "reactionary" viewpoints cannot be tolerated.
Justice Scalia's visit today will be brief, but he'll get a distinct taste, again, of what dialogue means to a liberal arts college in the Northeast. Instead of rational, albeit heated, arguments from his colleagues on the bench, the Justice will encounter theatrics: placards, armbands, chants, and boycotts. Academics need to regain their respect for the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, once considered so important to a proper liberal arts education. It's too bad Amherst won't lead the way.