A few nights before commencement, a visiting black student was fatally stabbed on the campus of University of Maryland in College Park. The alleged murderer, a Maryland student, was intoxicated. He is also a suspected—though according to investigations, not confirmed—white supremacist. The murder was horrific, and its possible racial motivation should not be swept under the rug.  

The university’s response, however, has followed a predictable and disappointing pattern. A single vanishingly unlikely incident has been turned into an indictment of the entire campus and into a honeypot for the burgeoning ranks of mediocre administrators who are colonizing the higher education system.

Wallace Loh, the university president, penned an editorial in the Baltimore Sun, calling for censorship of “hate speech,” even though no racial slurs or other insults were part of the murder. Loh writes, “The First Amendment was intended as a shield to safeguard dissent against the government. However, those who denigrate people solely because of their race, faith, gender or sexual orientation argue that their hateful speech is permissible as free speech.”

Actually, nobody “argues” this. That merely offensive speech, apart from actual incitement, is allowed under the First Amendment is as strongly supported by legal precedent as anything in constitutional law.

The op-ed then conflates incitement with the nebulous notion of “emotional” injury: “‘Fighting words’—those that by their mere utterance inflict emotional injury and tend to incite breach of the peace—are exceptions to the First Amendment. Surely, when wielded as a weapon, hate speech does not deserve constitutional protection. Many other liberal democracies sanction such speech.”

The piece concludes, “We allocated $100,000 for additional diversity and inclusion programming to benefit all members of the UMD community. We will deploy a trained, rapid-response team in any hate-bias incident in order to provide support to any UMD member who is the subject of such an incident.”

The University of Maryland, like many other state universities, is feeling the crunch from state and federal budget cuts, and increasingly relies on fundraising and philanthropy to meet its financial needs. At such a juncture, pouring tens of thousands of dollars into diversity programming—which has probably never in its history converted a neo-Nazi or a Klansman into a tolerant cosmopolitan—is a disgrace.

This is, by the way, the same university president who cheered a commencement address sharply critical of China over its restrictions on free speech and academic freedom. While China surely curtails free speech more severely than America’s SJWs, there is a whiff of hypocrisy in condemning a country for lacking free speech and then calling for censorship in one’s own.

But the story here is not just the University of Maryland. Universities and their presidents across America are closing down academic departments at the same time that they capitulate to student mobs and cannibalize limited budgets to increase micro-aggression training, diversity workshops, and hate-incident response teams. Rather than rely on human decency to heal our divisions, our universities turn people into archetypes in an oppression hierarchy. That this tribal groupthink might only appear to validate the poisonous ideology of white nationalism does not apparently occur to them.

I will always remember a story my father told me when I was young. He recalled a film shown in his grade school, depicting a neo-Nazi delivering a paean to Hitler in a park. After the speaker’s identity and ideology was clear, a narrator explained that in America, even this is permitted under the right of free speech.

The First Amendment, of course, does not compel anybody to shout Nazi slogans in a public square. That is where decency and civic virtue come in. These are things our schools also once used to teach. Education was not just about passing tests and building resumes. It was about shaping responsible citizens and passing on a body of wisdom and culture. Unlimited free speech, curtailed in practice by civic virtue, was once the norm. Now, having replaced virtue with politics, our schools seek to curtail free speech.

There is no question that America is going through a volatile political and social moment, and there is indeed a resurgence of attitudes and ideologies we once hoped were buried. The best thing universities can do is to rediscover their real mission—not hire bureaucrats to invent a new one.

Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He is a Master of Public Policy graduate from the University of Maryland.