The following article by Allan C. Brownfeld is reprinted with permission.
Free speech used to be highly valued, particularly on the nation’s college and university campuses. Academic freedom demanded a respect for a diversity of views. During the Vietnam War years, this writer taught at the University of Maryland. The campus was alive with debates about the war and a host of other subjects. There was no effort to silence diverse points of view. Earlier, as a student at the College of William and Mary and its law school, the notion that certain ideas could not be expressed because someone might be “offended” by hearing them was unknown. While our society has advanced in many ways since those years, with regard to free speech it appears to be in retreat.
Consider some recent events. In September, sophomore Bryan Stascavage, a 30-year-old Iraq veteran and self-described “moderate conservative,” wrote an opinion column for the Wesleyan Argus, the student newspaper. He was critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly its anti-police rhetoric. The article contained neither name-calling nor racial stereotyping of any kind. Within 24 hours, students were stealing and destroying newspapers around campus. The author was called a “racist” and the Argus‘s editors published an apology on the front page. They promised to make the paper “a safe space for the student of color community.” This wasn’t enough. Students circulated a petition to defund the newspaper. Finally, the school’s president spoke out and issued a statement titled “Black Lives Matter, and so Does Free Speech.” Despite this, the student government voted unanimously to halve the funding for the newspaper.
Commenting on this case, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell noted that, “As someone who once wrote inflammatory columns for school newspapers, I find this thinly veiled retribution deeply saddening . . . Crippling the delivery of unpopular views is a terrible lesson to send to impressionable minds and future leaders, at Wesleyan and elsewhere. It teaches students that dissent will be punished, that rather than pipe up they should nod along. It also teaches them they might be too fragile to tolerate words that make them uncomfortable; rather than rebut, they should instead shut down, defund, shred, disinvite. But the solution to speech that offends should always be more speech, not less.”
At the University of Missouri in early November, the campus was convulsed by protests against alleged racism, leading to the resignation of two top university officials. While this was going on, a student journalist was prevented from photographing a temporary encampment by a group of students on the university quad. “You do not respect our space,” he was told, followed up by, “You lost this one, bro.” The photographer, Tim Tai, was not intimidated and stood his ground. “Ma’am, the First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine,” he said. Three faculty members confronted Tai. One of them, Melissa Click, who teaches at the journalism school, is shown on a video calling out, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here. I need some muscle over here.” She and her colleagues seem to have forgotten that the quad of a public university is public space, and a journalist has the same free-speech rights as do the protestors.
Discussing events at the University of Missouri and elsewhere, New York Law School Professor Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, states that, “People wrongly believe they have a right not to be offended. This is not only faulty, but we as educators have a duty to be offensive in the sense of forcing people to rethink their fundamental assumptions. Diversity is cited as this mantra, yet we are killing ideological diversity, which is just as important.”
Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said censorship used to come primarily from the top down but now is coming from students. “Students increasingly seem to be arriving on campus believing that there is a generalized right not to be offended beyond the actual right to be free from harassment and threats, this amorphous right to emotional safety. It’s a troubling trend,” she said.
At Amherst College, in November, hundreds of students crammed into Robert Frost Library and demanded that students who had posted “Free Speech” and “All Lives Matter” posters go through “extensive training for racial and cultural competency” and possibly discipline. They wanted the administration to apologize for “our institutional agency of white supremacy,” among many other forms of discrimination like “heterosexist, cis-sexism, xenophobia, ableism, mental health stigma and classism.” On an alumni forum, Matthew Pewarski, of the class of 2008, asked, “Why is Amherst, an institution supportive of political freedoms, ultimately becoming a college full of restrictions?”
At Claremont McKenna College in California, protestors forced the resignation of the dean of students because she suggested that the school needed to do more for those who did not fit the “C.M.C. mold.” At Yale, more than 800 students, faculty, alumni and others signed a letter to the president, criticizing student demands like firing a house master who questioned the policing of Halloween costumes and creating a censure process for “hate speech.” The letter said these would reinforce “intellectual conformity.”
Something very strange is at work on university campuses. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee declared that the phrase “politically correct” is a microaggression. The master of Yale’s Pierson College said that his title reminds students of slavery. A Washington State University professor said she would lower the grade of any student who used the term “illegal immigrants” when referring to immigrants who were in the country illegally. Another Washington State professor, in her syllabus for “Women and Popular Culture,” noted that students risk”failure for the semester” if they use “derogatory/oppressive language” such as “referring to women/men as females or males.” The University of California system stipulated that “hostile” and “derogatory” thoughts include, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and “America is the land of opportunity.”
Things have been moving in this direction for some time. Americans used to frequently quote Voltaire’s declaration that, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is no longer the case at too many of our colleges and universities. We have entered the era of what has been called “the heckler’s veto.” Nat Hentoff, a long-time eloquent advocate for free speech, points out that, “First Amendment law is clear that everyone has the right to picket a speaker, and go inside a hall and heckle him or her—but not to drown out the speaker, let alone rush the stage and stop the speech before it starts. That’s called the ‘heckler’s veto.'”
In one typical case, in 2013, Robert Zoellick, an alumnus of Swarthmore College and former president of the World Bank, accepted and then turned down an invitation to speak at Swarthmore’s commencement, after students objected to his support of the Iraq war and his record at the World Bank. Zoellick, an official in George W. Bush’s administration, withdrew after students started a campaign calling him “an architect of the Iraq war” and a “war criminal.” In fact, while Zoellick did support the war, he had no role in planning it. He was Bush’s U.S. Trade representative and later worked to resolve the conflict in Darfur as a State Department official. He ran the World Bank from 2007 to 2012.
As the attacks on Zoellick grew, Swarthmore’s student paper, the Daily Gazette, mocked the political correctness that characterized the controversy. On April Fool’s Day, it wrote that the school “would not be offering degrees to any member of the Class of 2013 who does not plan to found a vegan coffee shop after graduation,” calling other professional choices “antithetical to Swarthmore values.”
Beyond the heckler’s veto, many universities have adopted speech codes to suppress speech that others find offensive. Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate, in their work “The Shadow University” (1998), refer to a number of cases where speech codes have been used by universities to suppress academic freedom, as well as freedom of speech.
In one case, they describe the so-called “water buffalo” incident at the University of Pennsylvania. A freshman student faced expulsion when he called African-American sorority members who were making substantial amounts of noise and disturbing his sleep during the middle of the night “water buffalo.” The charged student claimed not to have intended discrimination, as he spoke the modern Hebrew language and the term “water buffalo” or “behema” in modern Hebrew, is slang for a rude and disturbing person. Moreover, water buffalo are native to Asia rather than Africa. Some saw the statement as racist while others saw it as a general insult. The college eventually dropped the charge amid national criticism.
In 2009, Yale banned students from making T-shirts with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation—”I think of Harvard men as sissies”—from his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise—to mock Harvard at their annual football game. The T-shirt was blocked after some gay and lesbian students argued that “sissies” amounted to a homophobic slur. “What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable,” said Mary Miller, a professor of art history and dean of Yale College.
A recent study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members found that only 18.5 per cent of the faculty and staff strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”
Universities are becoming increasingly hostile to diverse ideas. At Colorado College, “safety” was invoked by a student group to prevent the screening of a film celebrating the Stonewall riots which downplays the role of minorities in the gay-rights movement. Students on many campuses are calling for warnings before colleges expose them to literature that deals with racism or violence. The Economist reports that, “People as different as Condoleezza Rice, a former Secretary of State, and Bill Maher, a satirist, have been dissuaded from giving speeches on campuses, sometimes on grounds of safety . . . Fifty years ago, student radicals agitated for academic freedom and the right to engage in political activities on campus. Now some of their successors are campaigning for censorship and increased policing by universities of student activities. The supporters of these ideas on campus are usually described as radicals. They are, in fact, the opposite.”
Our society, it seems, has failed to transmit our values, in particular free speech, to the next generation. According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, forty per cent of millennials support government censorship of speech offensive to minority groups. The poll found that millennial were the most likely of any age group to agree that government should have the authority to stop people from saying things that offend minorities.
There can be little doubt that our society is not doing a very good job in transmitting our history and values to the next generation. A recent survey of 1,100 colleges and universities found that only 18 per cent require American history or government, where the foundations of our society, such as the First Amendment, can be explained. The survey, by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found that at the universities where free speech is now under attack, such as the University Missouri, Amherst and Yale, very little is being done to transmit our history and values. Is it any wonder that at such institutions, those in charge tend to recoil from any defense of free speech? With few defenders in today’s academic world, the future of academic freedom looks increasingly bleak. Hopefully, alumni will rally to restore the universities they once knew, a genuine marketplace of ideas where “political correctness,” “safe zones” and “microaggression,” were terms yet to be coined.