A Reflection on “A Conversation with Josh Blackman”

By Robert Wines, AU SPA ’20

Turning on cable news media, it would appear as if college campuses are consistently in uproar. Conversations are turning into bar fights, professors are cracking down on dissenters, and speakers are provoking riots. While this may produce some good content for prime time, it does not reflect a new normal on campuses. In most cases, two students of differing views can sit and converse without any major issues.

However, there are certainly instances of voices on campus being silenced by a tyranny of the majority. Speaking before a mix of undergraduate and law students at the Washington College of Law on Thursday, September 27th, Josh Blackman reflected on his own experience of being shouted down by students at the City University of New York School of Law. Blackman, a professor of law at the South Texas College of Law Houston, used this example to analyze the state of discourse on American college campuses.

View of the Warren Building at the Washington College of Law
Credit: American University

Professor Blackman is a self-described right-of-center libertarian. While his talks rarely generate more than an interesting conversation, his one discussion at CUNY School of Law generated a mass protest from students. Entering the room, he was greeted by chants of “shame on you.” Students then lined the walls displaying messages of disapproval for his very presence on campus.

Professor Blackman’s response to the display of discontent is one that could be of value for those instances of uncivil discourse. While Professor Blackman could have chosen to take a defensive approach, he simply chose to thaw tensions by staying quiet, and as he put it, “let[ting] them get this out of their system.” Just like Rocky against Clubber Lang, he allowed them to throw punches until the point of exhaustion. As students began to show signs of fatigue, he began to address some of their arguments, using both ration and humor.

He responded with clever quips, but also sought common ground in their claims. Realizing that he was not providing them with the “triggering” content they wished to protest, a student grew frustrated and countered “f**k the law.” Yes, a student of the law, dismissing its very essence. At this point Prof. Blackman knew his dissenters had been disarmed. Soon after, protestors left, allowing him to field questions from those interested in what he had to say.

Professor Blackman displayed that one can be civil in the face of incivility. And, it was in being civil that he found his self-proclaimed enemies were unable to effectively take him down. Had he given the protestors what they wanted he would have ceded any leverage that he held. He best summarized this in saying, “If you maintain a civil demeanor, you are in a much better position.”

As for issues of free speech on campus, Professor Blackman addressed these issues in his discussion with Professor Lara Schwartz, as well as his Q&A session. His general message could be summarized in this: universities have an obligation to preserve free speech. In doing so, they would see radical viewpoints challenged and undermined.

I cannot find myself refuting his point.

Naturally, the conversation looked closely at the more controversial speakers.  Universities, public and private, would be doing a disservice to their students if they barred speakers from campus. Professor Blackman explained that doing this would create a “mystique and an allure.” However, when given the proper opportunity to be seen for who they are, “people will see that they are idiots.”

On the same token, universities have an obligation to promote the first amendment rights of their students. He went so far as to say, “Let student groups invite who they want and protest the hell out of it.” He endorsed this method so long as the speaker was given a chance to speak, and his/her safety was guaranteed.

I am a firm believer that politics is not a zero-sum game. Very rarely can it be boiled down to winners and losers. However, I will push back on my predisposition in this one instance. Professor Blackman taught us that incivility loses. The person that lacks civility will beat themselves every single time. The students who chose to shout Professor Blackman down defeated themselves. A speaker who chooses to troll instead of educate will defeat themselves. The uncivil defeat themselves.

Robert Wines is a junior at American University studying Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG), with an intended minor in Entrepreneurship. He currently serves as the president of the American University College Republicans, is a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, and is a winger for the men’s ice hockey team.

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