In the culture-wars currently rocking US campuses, the enemies of free speech have plenty of tools on their side. Many of these would appear to be advantages. For instance the employment of violence, thuggery and intimidation against those who disagree are generally effective ways to prevent people hearing things you do not want them to hear. As are the subtler but more regularly employed tactics for shutting people down, such a "no-platforming" people or getting them disinvited after they have been invited, should the speaker's views not accord 100% with those of their would-be censors. As also noted in this space before, many of the people who campaign to limit what American students can learn also have the short-term advantage of being willing to lie without compunction and cover over facts whenever they emerge.
The important point here, however, is that word "short-term". In the long run, those who wish to cover over a contrary opinion, or even inconvenient facts, are unlikely to succeed. Adults tend to be capable of more discernment and initiative than the aspirant-nannies believe them to be, and the effects will always tend to show. Take, for example, events in Portland, Oregon, last month.
In April, a gathering took place at the Portland State University. The occasion was billed as an interfaith panel and was given the title, "Challenging Misperceptions." As this is an era when perceptions, as well as misperceptions, of religion are perhaps unusually common, there might be some sense in holding such a discussion, even in the knowledge that it is likely to be hampered -- as interfaith get-togethers usually are -- by the necessity of dwelling on things that do not matter and focussing attention away from all things that do. Thus, by the end of an average interfaith event, it can generally be agreed upon that there are certain dietary laws that certain religions have in common, some agreement on the existence of historical figures and an insistence that religion is the answer to most problems of our world. Fortunately, at Portland, there were some people in the audience who appear to have been happy to avoid this sort of boilerplate.
A young woman raised her hand and asked the Muslim student on the panel about a specific verse in the Koran which would appear to approve killing non-Muslims (Possible verses might have included Qur'an: 8:12; 22:19-22; 2:191-193; 9.5; 9:29). The Muslim student replied:
"I can confidently tell you, when the Koran says an innocent life, it means an innocent life, regardless of the faith, the race, like, whatever you can think about as a characteristic."
This had the potential to develop into an interesting, or at the very least, an interestingly evasive answer. And so a young student there, named Andy Ngo, who also worked for the university's student newspaper, The Vanguard, got out his phone and began recording. The Muslim student on the panel went on to say:
"And some, this, that you're referring to, killing non-Muslims, that [to be a non-believer] is only considered a crime when the country's law, the country is based on Koranic law – that means there is no other law than the Koran. In that case, you're given the liberty to leave the country, you can go in a different country, I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. So you can go in a different country, but in a Muslim country, in a country based on the Koranic laws, disbelieving, or being an infidel, is not allowed so you will be given the choice [to leave]."
All of this is an admirably more complete answer than tends to be given at such affairs. All of this is also theologically strong. Speaking about the attitudes of the Islamic faith towards apostasy a few years ago, no less an authority than Yusuf al-Qaradawi said that if Muslims had got rid of the punishments for apostasy, "Islam would not exist today". It is a striking admission, and one which would appear to suggest an awareness that the religion's innate appeal is not as great as is often alleged.
The young reporter who captured this segment of video proceeded to share it on his Twitter account. This is the sort of thing journalists often do if they are at a public event and someone says something of interest. The alternatives (that journalists hope never to attend anything interesting, or attend events that are interesting but choose to keep their discoveries private) are not models for success in the profession.
In the days immediately following the event, a couple of websites picked up the story. Shortly afterwards, Andy Ngo was called in for a meeting at his student newspaper and told by the editor-in-chief that his behaviour was "predatory" and "reckless" and that he had put the life of the Muslim student and that student's family at risk. So far as anyone knows, nothing has happened to either the Muslim student or his family. Despite much flame-fanning by "Defenders of Minorities", America does not seem to be in the middle of a lynching season for religious minorities, even though these moralists often appear to wish it otherwise. Nevertheless, "health and safety" and "minimising harm" are, as Mark Steyn has observed, the new "shut up". Where once someone would invite you just to "shut up", today they can appeal to the possibility that a non-existent lynch-mob might show up to murder anyone whose cause the censor of the day happens to be trying to protect.
At any rate, while the Muslim student and his family are, of course, fine, the young journalist who reported his words was fired. The editor of The Vanguard at Portland State University decided that it was more important to cover up a story than to break it, more important to evade truths than to expose them, and more important to treat Portland students -- and the wider world -- as children rather than thinking adults able to make up their own minds.
The account of The Vanguard is a typical display of student cowardice and American academic dishonour. The report, nevertheless, should also stand as a demonstration of American hope. That students such as Andy Ngo exist is reason for considerable optimism. So long as there are even a few people left who are willing to ask the questions that need asking and willing to tell people about the answers they hear -- however uncomfortable they may seem right now -- all cannot possibly be lost. Indeed, it is imaginable, that with examples such as his, students in America could be reminded not only that truth will always triumph over lies, but that the current trend of ignorance and censorship might one day soon begin to be turned around.
Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England.