PBS Slights Non-Protester Rights on Campus: ‘No Right to…Most Convenient Path to Library’

News & Politics

Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour actually brought on a critic of the pro-Hamas protesters currently infesting college campus quads across the country, which so far have gotten a nearly free ride from scrutiny (there’s certainly been little scrutiny of the pro-Biden groups funding them).

New York Times columnist David French is certainly no hard-core conservative — he’s pretty close to PBS regular David Brooks — but his opinion that the “camping” protesters posed a threat to other students and should be removed was a strong counterpoint to PBS’s knee-jerk support of the agitators and its exquisite sensitivity to the radicals’ demands.

That was too much for NewsHour reporter and interviewee Lisa Desjardins, who found bizarre ways to excuse the mobs, which have often targeted Jewish students in disgusting ways. She introduced French as someone “who says colleges are not doing enough to crack down” on protests. Journalists have been terrible at distinguishing peaceful protests and occupying public or private spaces. 

Desjardins suggested to French he’s weak on injustice:  “Protesters do say they see an injustice overseas and America tied to that injustice some — they say, through its support of Israel. They see this as a life-and-death cause. They’re talking about nothing less than starvation, violent deaths of civilians. What should protesters be doing when they see injustice like that, in your view?”

Desjardins lectured that non-protesting students shouldn’t complain about little inconveniences: “As you know, there’s not the same kind of right to free speech on private college campuses as there is on public, but many embrace that ideal. But I also don’t know that there is an espoused right to sleep or right to have the most convenient path to the library….the Founders themselves espoused rebellion, not just their own.”

Jew checkpoints on campus aren’t exactly the same thing as a “convenient path to the library.”

Bonus coverage: In the previous segment, NewsHour congressional reporter Laura Barron-Lopez claimed Donald Trump had “demonized Palestinian refugees” at a campaign rally. What awful thing did Trump say? Her clip:

PBS NewsHour

5/7/24

7:32:27 p.m. (ET)

Amna Nawaz: Protests against the war in Gaza continue on a number of campuses across the country. As part of our ongoing coverage, Lisa Desjardins has a conversation tonight about the wave of crackdowns at some colleges and universities and how they are being justified.

Lisa Desjardins: Amna, the past day shows more action and reaction. Police made dozens of arrests as they broke up an encampment at the University of California, San Diego. At the University of Chicago, police disbanded another encampment. But, at MIT, pro-Palestinian protesters refused to move, despite the threat of academic suspension.

Today, in his own speech recognizing Holocaust Remembrance Day, House Speaker Mike Johnson charged that many schools are hostile places for Jewish people and have — quote — “succumbed to an antisemitic virus.”

Last night, we looked at the idea that colleges have themselves fomented these protests. Our guest tonight says colleges are not doing enough to crack down on them.

David French is an opinion columnist for The New York Times.

And, David, what do you think universities are getting wrong here?

David French, Opinion Columnist, The New York Times: Yes, what they’re getting wrong is, they’re ignoring their own reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that should allow all parties to have equal access to campus facilities.

This is something that universities who have tens of thousands of students often, but not — they don’t have the public spaces big enough to encompass everybody who might want to engage in free expression.

So, when you have a time, place and manner restriction, what that does is, it says everyone’s going to have equal access to the campus, and also that place and manner restriction means that people can’t disrupt the actual educational process of the school.

And so what’s happening is that many of these protests, particularly encampments, are occupying space on the quad. They’re, by necessity, excluding others who might want to use it. And then, with the nature of the protests, they’re interfering with the students’ ability to study, to learn, sometimes even to sleep.

And some of these Jewish students are finding that their access to campus is limited by the protests as well. And so by blowing through these time, place and manner restrictions, the protesters are actually violating the rights of other students.

And in that circumstance, the university has to step in.

Lisa Desjardins: Some of these protests, as you say, have raised a lot of concerns, but so has the idea of calling in police. Police have more power than students.

How do you see the idea that perhaps how do you make sure that a get-tough approach doesn’t go too far?

David French: Well, the bottom line is that these universities have a legal obligation to protect the rights of all of the students and also to protect the Jewish students on campus from antisemitic harassment.

So, when these encampments violate the rights of others and they refuse to leave, then, sometimes, there’s no option but to bring in law enforcement. Now, that doesn’t mean that law enforcement can do whatever it wants. It should be disciplined. It should be restrained in its use of force.

But when a group of students is violating the rights of other students, there are legal obligations that attach to the university to defend the rights of others. And so if these students won’t move, the university is, in many ways, their hands are tied, because they cannot continue to consent to the violation of other students’ rights.

Lisa Desjardins: Let me get at this idea of what is civil disobedience and what is actually problematic, unlawful conduct, as you’re saying.

For example, if there was a sit-in at a diner…

David French: Right.

Lisa Desjardins: … and those conducting the sit-in were preventing the business from conducting its own business and preventing other patrons from entering, is that something that you see in the same kind of light? And is it civil disobedience or not?

David French: Well, when we saw the civil rights movement, what you saw was protesters violating unjust laws, like prohibiting Black Americans from eating in the same diners as white Americans.

That’s violating an unjust law and then accepting the consequences. So you accept the consequences of your legal violation, which upholds the rule of law. But that’s the key. There’s an unjust law that you violate, and then you accept the consequences, and you do it all peacefully.

Here, in many ways, what they’re doing is, they’re violating just laws. In other words, they’re actually in violation of laws that protect the rights of others, and then they’re refusing to accept the consequences. They’re covering their faces to avoid detection. They’re often in outright defiance of the police when the police try to move them.

And that’s when you’re moving from civil disobedience, which is honorable and respects the rule of law, to outright lawlessness, where they’re violating just laws and refusing to accept the consequences.

Lisa Desjardins: Protesters do say they see an injustice overseas and America tied to that injustice some — they say, through its support of Israel.

They see this as a life-and-death cause. They’re talking about nothing less than starvation, violent deaths of civilians. What should protesters be doing when they see injustice like that, in your view?

David French: Well, they should absolutely lift up their voices in protest, and the schools should absolutely provide an avenue and a place for people to protest.

They can engage in their own boycotts. They can engage in all kinds of constitutionally protected activities to lift up this issue. But they do not have the ability, under American law, to violate the rights of others because they think it’s for a good cause. That is not the way this works.

You cannot — my First Amendment rights and my rights to study, to sleep, to receive the benefit of an education do not depend on whether or not another group of students consider that a cause is important enough to disrupt my rights. That’s not how this works. Students have ample opportunity to express their views, and they also have opportunity to engage in true, genuine, peaceful civil disobedience.

But what we’re seeing on many campuses, not all, but many campuses is something an order of magnitude beyond that.

Lisa Desjardins: As you know, there’s not the same kind of right to free speech on private college campuses as there is on public, but many embrace that ideal.

But I also don’t know that there is an espoused right to sleep or right to have the most convenient path to the library. All of this is sort of weighing with something you pay attention to, our founders. You’re an originalist. You pay attention to their intention here. The founders themselves espoused rebellion, not just their own.

How do you weigh that idea of this sort of American tension between, yes, speak up, even do rebellious acts for something you believe in, but also perhaps follow the law?

David French: In many of these campuses, if you’re talking about people in their own dorms, in the comfort of their own dorms, there is a right to some peace and safety and security here.

And it is in fact violation of federal law, anti-harassment law, in particular, when, in particular, Jewish students can’t have full access to campus, can’t have — can’t sleep, can’t rest. These things actually violate federal law when it rises to that level.

And in that circumstances, these universities have to do something to protect the rights of other students. The right to rebellion, I would say that that was seriously diminished after the loss in the Civil War by the Confederacy. I don’t think there’s any real concept of a right to rebellion.

In this circumstance, if you have an actual rebellion against authority on campus, where people move beyond these reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, they’re violating the rights of others. And I’m sorry, the law protects all of us. It doesn’t just protect a small cohort of people who decide to occupy part of a campus.

Lisa Desjardins: David French, part of a national conversation here, we appreciate your time.

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