“Who is Aaron Barlow?” wrote Robin Kaler, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in an email to colleagues last October. She asked this in one of the emails relating to Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Steven Salaita case that were “dumped” last week in response to a FOIA request, emails that had not been on university servers or accounts so not previously released. The question came as part of a discussion sparked by a “reblog” I did of a Retraction Watch post on a retraction relating to Wise’s scholarship. Only peripherally did it have much to do with me.
It sent a chill down my spine anyhow, and I did not feel any better when a friend on Facebook mentioned it—I didn’t know anyone but me was bothering to read the emails.
Kaler, of course, meant nothing malicious. She was simply trying to get a handle on a situation that was threatening to get out of control (it has, since; Chancellor Wise has now resigned). But this happened within the context of the Steven Salaita/UIUC imbroglio, where Salaita lost a tenured (though that is disputed) position because of a series of Twitter tweets. And this in a time when Twitter and other social media sites are being used more and more frequently in bullying fashion. The bullying or related actions with similar impact even go beyond social media: Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, was brought up on a Title IX complaint for having published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, it was claimed, might suppress student willingness to speak out. She was exonerated, but the damage was done.
No one, it seems, is able to speak freely any longer. Even speaking freely is seen as stifling speaking freely.
When I first started participating in internet-based discussion well more than a decade ago, I quickly decided that anonymity online was something I wanted to avoid. It could lead someone to say or write something without first having to consider what it might do to their own reputation—a valuable filter. The Lee Siegel “sockpuppet” to-do in 2006, among other similar embarrassments, convinced me that I was right.
For myself, as time passed, I began to construct a few rules. Most important, I would not attack anyone online who was not a secure public figure. I’ll happily tear into David Brooks, but I will not go after someone just for saying something stupid in a public context. After all, I haven’t the clout to harm Brooks; someone with a lower public profile and the sort of hand-to-mouth job most of us have, on the other hand, can be damaged by what almost anyone says about them online. Salaita, until the whole situation blew up, would have been in this second category—it has certainly been proven that he could be hurt. Perhaps I might have disagreed with him, and done so publicly, but I would not have torn into him personally. And I do not think he should have been punished for his tweets.
Sometimes I have made mistakes online, though they have not had anything near the consequences of what Salaita tweeted. In a Salon piece on Brooks, I unfairly characterized an African writer as having abandoned his home continent for the US. He’s a writer I admire greatly, one I have quoted in my own books and articles, but I did not take the time I should have to confirm what I believed. As a result of my error, I was attacked on Twitter by his supporters, and sometimes quite viciously—even after I had apologized. Some of them deliberately inflated my mistake, agitating for an online “piling on” that, fortunately, did not happen, as it did happen to Justine Sacco.
Those of us who have an online presence but who have not the level of security of a Brooks or a Donald Trump (and that is most of us, these days) are being forced into positions of self-censorship. One of the reasons for Trump’s popularity, I believe, is that he is one of the very few who is not self-censoring—and who doesn’t have to be. Most of the rest of us, from politicians and pundits (including Brooks) on down, try to be at least a little bit circumspect. And many of us, today, are feeling that we are unable to express ourselves, be it due to “political correctness” or fear of retaliation up to the level Salaita experienced or Kipnis’s. Or worse. Trump’s allure is that he is willing to do what we can’t—whether we agree with him or not.
This is where the protections provided both by the First Amendment and the concept of Academic Freedom become so important, and where we (as the American culture) are letting both fail. We are letting “anti-Semitism” or “civility” or some other concept trump freedom of expression. ‘Falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater’ has been expanded to the point where it muzzles too many—and we have become participants in mobs attacking those we don’t like, and way too easily. Between these two, Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom become endangered. That Salaita lost his job and Kipnis’s was threatened for written words far from the pristine groves of academe shows that, today, we cannot divorce public expression of any sort from Academic Freedom, for their voices have both been compromised, now, within academia. The two can both still express themselves, but no longer without looking over their shoulders, so to speak, constantly worried that they will be blindsided once again.
I shouldn’t be concerned by a question about me sparked by a public comment in an email far away. In most respects, I am not. Clearly, as I said, Kaler was not writing with any malicious intent. But the concern is there. It’s the same concern that I have every time I get an email telling me I’ve been mentioned on Twitter. In too many cases, we’ve crossed the lines created by the First Amendment and by Academic Freedom. And we’re creating too many excuses for doing so. In too many cases, people are being injured—and not just by the mob mentality of social media but by people in academic administrations, people who should know better.