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War on campus The escalating battle over college free speech

April 21, 2017

 

Free speech came to fisticuffs before alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer could even begin his speech at Auburn University.

 

Students encircling the brawl said a Spencer supporter began jawing with an antifa, or anti-fascist, protester over Spencer's right to speak. A punch was thrown. The men spun through the crowd, swinging fists and grasping for headlocks before thudding to the ground.

 

It was over in seconds with both men in cuffs -- one of them bloodied -- and carted off to jail.

Auburn had tried four days earlier to cancel Spencer's speech Tuesday night. But a federal judge forced the public university to let him exercise his First Amendment rights.

 

 

The episode comes amid what critics say is a growing intolerance for the exchange of ideas at American colleges and universities. In recent months battles over free speech on campuses have descended into violence across the nation.

 

The University of California, Berkeley, erupted into near-riots in February during protests against professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and again last week over President Donald Trump. When political scientist Charles Murray spoke last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, protesters got so rowdy that a professor accompanying him was injured.

More and more American universities are avoiding controversial speech altogether by banning polarizing speakers. On Wednesday Berkeley said it would seek to cancel next week's scheduled speech by right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, citing safety concerns.

 

And students say the middle ground on campuses is in danger of becoming quicksand, a place where neither side dares tread.

 

"There's no test, just an escalation of hostilities on both sides," said Tyler Zelinger, 21, a senior studying political science and business at Atlanta's Emory University. "When there's no more argument, there's no more progress."

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