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Today’s college motto: Pipe down already

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By Debra J. Saunders
Published:
First the censorious left went after Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born critic of Islam's treatment of women, after Brandeis University had invited her to receive an honorary degree. Bowing to political correctness, Brandeis rescinded the invitation.
Then the academic mob went after Rutgers' choice for commencement speaker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She withdrew. Next, student activists went after International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde — because the IMF is “a primary culprit” in economies of “the world's poorest countries” — and she bowed out of a speech at Smith College.
On Tuesday, former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau became the latest public figure to wave the white flag. Haverford College had invited him to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree. A group of students and professors protested on the grounds that Birgeneau had allowed UC police to use “force” to break up a disruptive Occupy demonstration in 2011. They issued a list of demands, including that he apologize, support “reparations” for protesters and write a letter about all the bad things he had done.
Who needs censorship when protest alone can silence speakers who in any way deviate from the left's radical agenda?
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls this the “disinvitation season.” Campus protests against establishment speakers may be old school. Today's students believe less in free speech than in their perceived right not to be offended.
The “disinvitation season” is moving in an ominous direction. The left sees Hirsi Ali, though a feminist, as a creature of the right because she challenges radical Islam. When she didn't back down, Brandeis did.
I understand why Rice withdrew. Protests would have turned what should be a celebration into a rehashing of the Bush weapons of mass destruction claims. Figure Lagarde has serious economic issues to tackle, so why should she bother with thin-skinned, lightweight critics?
In Birgeneau's case, the left is eating its own. He was a vocal supporter of racial preferences in university admissions. In 2010, when hunger-striking students demanded that their chancellor denounce an Arizona law that allowed police to question suspects about their immigration status, he wrote that the law “horrified” him. He did not give in to all the activists' demands — he didn't rehire laid-off janitors — but he agreed to meet and to include UC employees in a task force on the undocumented.
In response to the Haverford protest, Birgeneau issued this statement: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”
Actually, Birgeneau has given in to student demands. I guess he forgot. Lukianoff is baffled by Birgeneau's assertion that students' verbal attacks are “violent.” In those two sentences, Birgeneau displays the same mastery of sophistry as the students who demanded that he show “leadership” by caving in to their demands.
They won. Birgeneau now is a leader at surrendering. A former chancellor, he should have fought for the free exchange of ideas; instead, he tossed the keys of the library to the book burners.
Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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