Legislature should stay out of debates taking place on college campuses

Last Tuesday, in the middle of Black History Month, a group of somber looking state legislators gathered at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford to express their concerns about continuing oppression — of conservative students on college campuses.

Their Exhibit A and featured speaker at the press conference was Nicholas Engstrom, a sophomore at Trinity College in Hartford, where he is president of the Trinity College Republicans and a member of the Churchill Club. He is also communications director for the Connecticut Federation of College Republicans.

Engstrom is an impressive, self-confident young man. He hails from the predominately liberal and affluent coastal community of Swampscott, Mass., just north of Boston. He told reporters his “story of persecution.”

He is artful in the skill of aggrievement, not unlike Fox News stars Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters, both Trinity graduates who Engstrom clearly emulates. Carlson and Watters are forever warning white, conservative America of how it is being put upon by a changing — browning — United States that shows no respect for traditional values.

Engstrom described how things got ugly at Trinity when he pushed to have the Churchill Club, which claims 10 members, recognized as a student group. The club is an offshoot of the Churchill Institute, led by a Trinity political science professor, Greg Smith. Its premise is that, “Western Civilization is under attack, politically and militarily, but even more ominously, intellectually.”

Other students, seeing those as code words for manning the barricades against an America that is becoming more diverse and tolerant, pushed back. There were protests. Engstrom said it went too far, that he was threatened and labeled a white supremacist. Such conduct is wrong and undermines free expression. Disagree, but don’t resort to threats and name calling.

Yet Engstrom and his fellow conservatives knew they were doing something provocative on the liberal campus and, I get the impression, relished to some degree in the controversy it churned up, the left-wingers it annoyed, and the attention it garnered.

And here is the thing. After the Student Government Association refused to recognize the Churchill Club, Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeny, a black woman, did the right thing. Noting the club had met the requirements, she overruled the SGA and recognized the organization. Offending students were disciplined for trying to intimidate Engstrom.

“We have an unshakable commitment to free expression and inquiry, open debate and discourse, and the valuing of all voices,” Berger-Sweeney said.

Which bring us back to those somber-looking folks standing behind Engstrom. They are members of the General Assembly’s Conservative Caucus, proud to stand further right than their fellow Republican lawmakers. The caucus chair is Rep. Mike France of Ledyard and it includes Rep. Doug Dubitsky, whose 47th District contains a slice of Norwich. Neither man attended the press conference.

The caucus has introduced a bill stating that a student cannot be penalized based on the political content of the views he or she express, including in class, and mandating that all students have “equal access to public forums on school grounds.”

It would cover only public colleges. Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, called that a first, incremental step toward protections for all students.

I agree political correctness can go too far on campuses. Needing a “safe space” because you don’t want to hear a differing viewpoint is silliness, especially in a place where differing opinions should clash. Speakers should not be shouted down because they are saying something you think is wrong. They should be refuted.

But using government to micro-manage such issues on college campuses is the wrong approach, and a particularly strange idea coming from the Conservative Caucus, which advocates for less government regulation. Free speech is protected by the First Amendment. Existing college policies already prohibit intimidation, protect academic freedom and allow organizations to form, regardless of politics, if they are not discriminatory. Trinity worked it out.

If a college is not playing fair with those rules, use that First Amendment to call it out. Make some noise. Dangle a lawsuit. But don’t rely on a nanny state regulation to make it all better.

Engstrom, it’s clear, knows how to make noise. He may well have a bright future in politics, or on Fox.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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