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Students who squelch free speech perpetuate fascism they claim to oppose, university president says

University of Oregon President Michael H. Schill wrote in a New York Times op-ed that when students at his school shut down his planned state-of-the-university speech earlier this month, they hurt their own cause. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

University of Oregon President Michael H. Schill sees the ironies all too clearly.

Schill noted in an op-ed for the New York Times that when megaphone-armed students at his school took over a stage, began chanting, and shut down his planned state-of-the-university speech earlier this month, they actually hurt their own cause.

Image source: YouTube screenshot

Strangely, one of the students' complaints, Schill wrote, was that he supports free speech on campus — which the students said perpetuates “fascism and white supremacy."

But Schill said the "tactic of silencing" speech has been "deployed repeatedly at universities around the country" and that "it only hurts these activists’ cause."

"Rather than helping people who feel they have little power or voice," Schill added, "students who squelch speech alienate those who are most likely to be sympathetic to their message."

"It is also ironic that they would associate fascism with the university during a protest in which they limit discourse.," he continued. "One of the students who stormed the stage during my talk told the news media to 'expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.' That is awfully close to the language and practices of those the students say they vehemently oppose."

More from Schill's op-ed:

Fundamentally, fascism is about the smothering of dissent. Every university in the country has history classes that dig into fascist political movements and examine them along very clear-eyed lines. Fascist regimes rose to power by attacking free speech, threatening violence against those who opposed them, and using fear and the threat of retaliation to intimidate dissenters.

By contrast, American academia is dedicated to rational discourse, shared governance and the protection of dissent. Historically, fascists sought to silence, imprison and even kill university professors and other intellectuals who resisted authoritarian rule. So the accusation that American universities somehow shelter or promote fascism is odd and severely misguided.

Schill acknowledged that students are "fed up with what they see as a blanket protection of free speech that, at its extreme, permits the expression of views by neo-Nazis and white supremacists." But while he said he's also "opposed to all these groups stand for," the fact that words are "offensive" cannot be the "sole criterion for shutting down a speaker."

More from his op-ed:

The students’ own tactics reveal just how malleable the concept of offensiveness can be. For example, the word “fascism” has deep emotional connotations for me. It’s the reason for great suffering in my family. Two generations ago, members of my extended family were thrown into concentration camps and murdered in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

So, when students accuse me of leading an institution that harbors and promotes fascism, it offends me. But does that justify my censoring their speech? Clearly the answer is no.

Schill emphasized that amid protests and demands for change, "nothing is more important to this exchange than free speech. Our future as a university, and more broadly, our future as a nation, depends upon our willingness to hear voices different from our own and engage in meaningful discussion."

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