On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part II


“The speech we must protect most forcefully is not the speech we hate the most, but the speech that is most endangered.” — CUNY Professor of History Angus Johnston (@studentactivism) on Twitter, April 25

“The countless fruitful discussions that happen all the time in college classrooms don’t grab headlines.” — UW Milwaukee Professor of Languages and Literatures Joel Berkowitz (@JoelBerkowitz) on Twitter, June 7

This is the second installment in a four-part series.

In the first installment of this series I reviewed the history of the AAUP’s engagement with the issue of outside speakers, offered some arguments about why efforts to deny the right to speak of offensive speakers not only violate free expression but are counter-productive, discussed events surrounding the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s speech at UC Berkeley, and concluded with some thoughts about the “heckler’s veto.”

In this installment I will address the broader context of current debates about campus free speech, pushing back specifically against arguments that the academy has become illiberal and that student intolerance is the main threat to academic freedom.  In the forthcoming Part III I will address the argument that some speech claims cannot be subject to debate because they “invalidate the humanity of some people,” offer a defense (albeit perhaps partial) of student protesters, and conclude with a discussion of a number of flawed legislative and institutional “remedies” that have been proposed — and in some cases enacted — to address the alleged crisis of free expression supposedly provoked by student activists on campus and suggest some alternative approaches.  (It was my original intent to cover all the above topics in a single installment, but the length grew unwieldy).  Part IV will probe some theoretical issues concerning the relationship of academic freedom to free speech and conclude with a discussion of intellectual challenges to the whole idea of free speech and tolerance.

Is the Academy Illiberal?

To hear some critics tell it, American college and university campuses have become centers of illiberal intolerance, where a supposedly “leftist” orthodoxy championed by protesting students and their faculty allies seeks to effectively silence all dissent, especially that from the Right side of the political spectrum.  Stanley Kurtz, writing in The National Review, decries the “chronic, pervasive, and steadily growing vice-grip of campus orthodoxy, punctuated and enforced by occasional shout-downs and meeting takeovers” that has produced a “tattered campus climate of free speech.”  Efforts to silence outside speakers, he contends, are “no longer occasional embarrassing episodes but the fruit of a deliberate strategy devised by influential sectors of the campus left.”

Charles Cooke, National Review‘s editor, has gone so far as to claim, on Twitter, that arguments claiming speech may cause “harm” will result in nothing less than “the death of the West,” an idea echoed by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who suggests that “fragile thugs who call themselves students” are partly responsible for an existential “crisis of Western Civ[ilization].”

Such sentiments are not limited to the political Right.  NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that “intimidation is the new normal” on college campuses.  Wisconsin political scientist Douglas Downs, an expert on academic freedom, asserts that in American institutions of higher learning “free speech is more threatened than ever,” forgetting, perhaps, the experience of the “red scares” of the post-WWI years and the 1950s.  The editors of USA Today fear that “respect for free speech is withering on campus,” while claiming in a headline that “campus mobs muzzle free speech.”

Fareed Zakaria, usually considered a moderate liberal, went perhaps the furthest.  Speaking on his CNN show May 28, Zakaria declared that “conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely” on campuses.  “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity — except intellectual diversity,” he charged, adding that “an attitude of self-righteousness” is leading to “the ideas we find offensive” being drowned out.  As evidence Zakaria cited the walkout of some graduates at Notre Dame to protest the appearance of Vice President Mike Pence and the protest by graduates at Bethune-Cookman University of a commencement talk by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Of course, Pence’s speech was not even interrupted by the walkout and in no sense was he silenced.  And, as I discussed previously on this blog, while some Bethune-Cookman graduates did boo DeVos, their principal mode of protest was to turn their backs silently on her.  She too was able to speak with minimal interruption.  Indeed, that these two were invited to speak at all suggests that conservative politics are far from entirely unwelcome at some universities.  But when has a cable news pundit allowed stubborn facts to interfere with a good rant?  (More shortly on the peculiar nature of controversies over commencement speakers.)

Such arguments are — at minimum — overwrought exaggerations.  To be sure, as my previous entry in this series acknowledged, efforts to silence outside speakers and impose some sort of orthodoxy are both wrong and ill-advised.  But to conclude that such efforts are broadly characteristic of American higher education today or that they pose a major threat to liberal democracy more generally — or even that they are the main threat to free expression on campus — is, to be blunt, totally wrong-headed, even absurd.

For one thing, if one seeks sources of illiberalism in American society today — or even in American colleges and universities — there are culprits far more frightening and obvious than protesting college students and their allegedly complicit professors.  Unless one somehow considers overt and sometimes violent racism not to be illiberal, shouldn’t we consider the shocking explosion of racist expression and racial violence in the months after the election of Donald Trump a more serious challenge to liberal tolerance than the attempted silencing of conservative speakers, some of whom are themselves avowed racists, on campus?

As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports,

In the immediate aftermath of Election Day, a wave of hate crimes and lesser hate incidents swept the country — 1,094 bias incidents in the first 34 days . . . . The hate was clearly tied directly to Trump’s victory.  The highest count came on the first day after the election, with the numbers diminishing steadily after that.  And more than a third of the incidents directly referenced either Trump, his “Make America Great Again” slogan, or his infamous remarks about grabbing women by the genitals.

Moreover, the SPLC adds,

The number of hate groups operating in the country in 2016 remained at near-historic highs, rising from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year . . .. That’s only about 100 fewer organizations than the 1,018 tallied in 2011, which was the all-time high in some 30 years of SPLC counts.

And the numbers undoubtedly understate the real level of organized hatred in America. In recent years, growing numbers of right-wing extremists operate mainly in cyberspace until, in some cases, they take action in the real world. . . .

By far the most dramatic change was the enormous leap in anti-Muslim hate groups, from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year — a 197% increase.

And then there is online radicalization.  Two scholars who have studied the phenomenon, report that racist

radicalization seems to be spreading across the internet — and once groups have been red-pilled on one issue, they’re likely to be open to other extremist ideas.  Online cultures that used to be relatively nonpolitical are beginning to seethe with racially charged anger.  Some sci-fi, fandom, and gaming communities — having accepted run-of-the-mill anti-feminism — are beginning to espouse white-nationalist ideas.  “Ironic” Nazi iconography and hateful epithets are becoming serious expressions of anti-Semitism.

One recent study finds that white-supremacist Twitter accounts have increased more than 600 percent since 2012, and outperform ISIS accounts by every possible metric.

It is important to note that these developments have had profound implications for colleges and universities, as the AAUP’s Council stressed in a resolution adopted last November.  National Public Radio (NPR) reports “an unprecedented spike in white supremacist activity on campuses across the U.S.”  They note that “hate watch groups have tracked 150 incidents of white supremacist propaganda on campuses since the fall.  Even just a year ago, it was such a rarity no one was even counting.”  The Washington Post reported that the Anti-Defamation League has seen “an unprecedented outreach effort [by white supremacist groups] to attract and recruit students on American college campuses.”  Just one recent example: in April, flyers with phrases like “stop the blacks” and “join your local Nazis” were posted around the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Yet somehow, we are told, these ominous developments pale before the threat to liberal tolerance posed by a relatively small number of student protests against controversial speakers.

And then there is the growing threat to freedom of the press, a threat that extends to student media.  One lawyer and former newsman, who has spent many years defending press freedom, writes that “the First Amendment will soon be tested in ways we haven’t seen before.”  Evoking the experience of the late 18th-century Alien and Sedition Acts, Bill Moyers warns that with respect to a free press “genuine trouble is at our doorstep.”   He concludes: “If the First Amendment vanishes, the rest of the Bill of Rights goes with it.  And we’re dangerously close.”

Press freedom is also in trouble on campus.  Incidents of student media censorship occur much more frequently than the more attention-grabbing — and usually less successful — protests against controversial speakers.  Last year the AAUP, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center issued a report, “Threats to the Independence of Student Media,” which documented how many “college and university authorities have exhibited an intimidating level of hostility toward student media, inhibiting the free exchange of ideas on campus.”  Sadly, commentators who eagerly echo charges that student protesters create a “tattered climate” for free speech, overwhelmingly ignored this important report.

I’ve drifted somewhat from the topic of outside speakers in order to provide a broader context for this issue and to demonstrate that extensive hand-wringing about speaker protests distracts from much more ominous threats to liberal democracy.  But the principal point is that colleges and universities, far from being threats to the free exchange of ideas, remain, despite their many flaws, as I put it in the first entry in this series, “the places in America where the diversity of views to be found is most extensive and least restricted, certainly when compared to the mass media, the corporate world, or religious institutions.”

To be sure, the widespread complaint from the Right that faculty in the humanities and social sciences are overwhelmingly on the left is not without basis.  And it would be foolish to deny that this preponderance could inappropriately narrow the scope of discourse in these disciplines.  But even here, as conservative scholars themselves attest (see also here and here), diversity of views and freedom of debate are far more extensive than critics would have it.  I wonder as well why we don’t hear complaints about the obvious right-wing tilt of public employees in police and fire departments and the military or about the near-total absence of supporters of labor unions and often of even moderate regulatory liberals in business schools and economics departments (not to mention college and university boardrooms).  Moreover, if faculty members in STEM disciplines have recently become more politically outspoken and liberal, might that not be a function of the anti-scientific rhetoric spewing from the cynical alliance of religious fundamentalism and commercial interest opposing evolution and climate science now dominating the political Right?

The fact is that at almost every American college and university each day there occur meaningful exchanges of ideas far more extensive and unfettered than just about anywhere else in our society.  At UC Berkeley, for example, site of the heavily publicized confrontations over Milo Yiannopoulos and Coulter, speakers from all perspectives regularly appear on campus — in classes, seminars and public settings — without fuss or bother.  I have lived within two miles of the Berkeley campus for most of my adult life and I can testify personally that I have attended many campus presentations by speakers on the Left and the Right (but mostly in between or apolitical) and have never once witnessed an effort to deny the speaker’s right to address an audience.

Moreover, those institutions that stand as exceptions to such extensive free expression are, by and large, colleges — often religiously based — that openly bar ideas and expression most usually associated not with the Right but with the Left.  Take, for instance, Politico‘s report on Jerry Falwell Jr.’s flagrantly misnamed Liberty University:

A member of the Board of Trustees who criticized Trump and questioned Falwell’s endorsement of him was pushed into resigning.  In the student newspaper, the Liberty Champion, a student-penned column criticizing Trump’s grotesque “Access Hollywood” comments about women was preemptively censored at Falwell’s request (that writer has since resigned).  And Liberty’s faculty — all of whom work without the possibility of tenure — are reluctant to speak out, with many fearing retribution and the loss of their positions.

Then there is Liberty’s faculty handbook, which declares: “All employees of the University are expected to conduct themselves in matters of language and morality in a manner compatible with the Mission of the University and The Liberty Way.  Unsuitable conduct may be grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

So much for “liberty.”  Yet Falwell is surely among those who view the excesses (and, yes, once again they are indeed excesses, mistaken and wrong) of a relatively small number of “leftist” students as the most ominous threat to campus freedom.

In a remarkable twitter thread (now “storified“) University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Joel Berkowitz vividly described the sorts of exchanges that take place regularly in college classrooms:  “The countless fruitful discussions that happen all the time in college classrooms don’t grab headlines,” he writes. “They’re the ‘dog bites postman’ of highered news, minus the biting.  I couldn’t tell you how many animated, but entirely civil disputes I’ve facilitated in my classes in over 25 years of teaching.”

After describing a particularly poignant interaction between a black woman M.A. student and a white police officer in a discussion of policing and race informed by readings of African-American literature, Berkowitz continues:

“Students With Diametrically Opposed Views Smile & Nod at One Another” is not a headline.  But maybe it should be.  Neither is “Student Raises Voice in Heated Class Discussion, but No Harm Done, and People Learned Stuff.”  The truly worrying class sessions, btw, aren’t when voices get raised.  When managed well, those are the best ones.  The worst are when it’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to participate at all.  Maybe someone could endow a center to combat that sort of thing.  Seriously, though, we already have that: it’s called a university.

Returning to his example, Berkowitz asks,

If they hadn’t enrolled in my class, would Ron & Lisa ever have met?  Maybe.  Would they have debated central themes in “Invisible Man”?  In that class, they & a couple of dozen classmates from diverse backgrounds & w/ diverse views did so, for several months.  MILLIONS of students do that all the time, guided by skilled, dedicated instructors who facilitate civil debates & steer discussions — not toward the “moral of the story,” but to something less obvious, & unlikely to be wrapped up in a pretty bow.  But discussions in which numerous points of view are encouraged–b/c you know what?  Otherwise, TEACHING & LEARNING WOULD BE REALLY BORING!  So spare us the sanctimony about conservatives needing platforms, please. Spare us the cherry-picked moments of a Coulter deciding she can’t or won’t take the heat.  How about directing resources to where they’re really needed? . . .   [T]he insistence on giving any particularly political agenda a “platform” on campus either misunderstands or distorts the civil, constructive debates & disagreements that happen in higher ed classrooms every single day.

The Main Threats to Academic Freedom

How extensive are challenges to outside speakers?  Do incidents like those involving Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, Charles Murray at Middlebury, or Heather MacDonald at Claremont-McKenna represent the tip of a larger iceberg?  And, if so, does the iceberg menace all of higher education or only a relatively small number of elite institutions?

Writing in response to the Middlebury incident, Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter opined that what was most scary about that confrontation was how “it felt like an everyday event.”  Carter explains:

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE], 2016 saw a record number of efforts to keep controversial speakers from being heard on campus — and that’s just in the U.S.  To be sure, not all of the attempts succeeded, and the number catalogued, 42, is but a small fraction of the many outsiders who give addresses at colleges and universities each year.  The real number of rejected speakers is certainly much higher, once we add in all the people not invited in the first place because some member of this or that committee objects to their views, or because campus authorities fear trouble.  But even one would be too many.

Now, I admire much of the excellent work that FIRE has done in defense of student free expression and faculty academic freedom, but their “disinvitation” database, to which Carter refers, is not one of their more commendable efforts.  Indeed, I would argue that it actually makes the case that the problem it seeks to track — assaults on the rights of outside speakers — is in reality much less severe than the organization claims it is.

That was the contention as well of Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, who pointed out that

the total number of talks on potentially politically sensitive topics at American colleges and universities in any one year must reach seven figures (There are four thousand such institutions in the US, so if you assume an average of one such talk per day per institution — surely a gross underestimate — that’s 1,460,000 opportunities for civil discourse-destroying protest).  So tens of thousands — at least — politically controversial talks take place at American institutions of higher learning for every one that leads to any (overt) attempt to keep that talk from taking place.

The point was further developed by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who called attention to

the chief problem with the FIRE database: It treats every protest against a speaker as a blow against free speech, whether it resulted in a genuine disinvitation or not, whether the event was a commencement address or campus talk or panel discussion, and whether the protest came from on campus or off. . . .

Then there’s the question about what qualifies as a “disinvitation.”  The details of protests or expressions of disapprovals of speakers show that many of these are not genuine attempts “to prevent those with whom they disagreed from speaking on campus,” as FIRE describes them.

Consider a dual appearance of Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner at Notre Dame’s commencement last year.  FIRE lists these as the targets of disinvitations, but its only evidence is a letter from 89 students saying they were “disappointed and discouraged” by the invitations chiefly because of Biden’s tolerance for abortion.  But the students didn’t call for the invitations to be rescinded or for Biden and Boehner to be prevented from speaking.

Then there’s the disinvitation of the physician Emily Wong as commencement speaker at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.  FIRE asserts that this happened because Wong “could not ‘directly address student concerns’ such as transphobia, racial issues, and sexual violence,” which makes the episode sound like the height of loony leftism.  But that’s a gross misrepresentation of what happened.

The truth is that the college president, Jonathan Lash, had selected Wong on his own because the students’ choices, including writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bernie Sanders, weren’t available.  After students and faculty protested Lash’s high-handedness, he relented.  The students, faculty and administration then settled on Reina Gossett, an activist writer and filmmaker whose “life and work,” according to Hampshire’s press release, “engage the issues that have been raised by students around anti-blackness, transphobia, and sexual violence.”  FIRE took a phrase that applied to Gossett and turned it, inaccurately, into a critique of Wong.

Hiltzik observes that “only 24 ‘disinvitations’ in 2016 resulted in a true withdrawn invitation; in FIRE’s full database of 331 incidents going back to 2000, only 145 were true disinvitations.  Is a protest that fails to result in a withdrawn invitation a blow against free speech?” he asks.  “Hardly.  In many if not most cases, it’s an expression of free speech.”

And then, Hiltzik notes, there is the problem of conflating protests against commencement speakers with other protests.  Commencements account for about 40% of the incidents in FIRE’s database of 331 “disinvitations” dating back to 2000, and seven of the 43 cases last year.   As I wrote previously on this blog,

it is surely true that in many instances student objections to controversial commencement speakers may indeed inappropriately chill meaningful debate.  But a closer look at the phenomenon reveals that students are often more concerned about whether speakers were chosen with meaningful participation by student representatives than they are with the content of the speeches or the pedigree of the speaker.  Moreover, protesting students often point out that a commencement speaker is not an ordinary campus speaker.  Those invited are generally given some honor, usually a symbolic degree, and hence their words are provided a sort of official “stamp of approval” that would not necessarily be the case for those invited during the school year by an academic program or a student group.  In addition, students say, commencement is not a classroom or a traditional forum for debate; it is a celebration of the graduates and their achievements and speaker choices should recognize that.  On ordinary occasions when an objectionable speaker comes to campus, students who disagree can boycott the speech or peacefully protest the talk outside.  But is it fair to ask them to boycott or demonstrate at their own commencement?

David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, writing in the New York Times, agrees:

College administrators and invited speakers, especially those who have helped build the partisan society we live in, shouldn’t be sputtering mad when students object.  Commencement speeches are ceremonial and symbolic.  Nobody remembers a word of what most speakers say anyway.  Their mere presence is usually the whole point.

We mustn’t tolerate intolerance in this country.  We ought to embrace dialogue and debate.  But that doesn’t mean inviting disagreeable speakers to graduation parties.  Quite the opposite.

Responding to Hiltzik’s column, FIRE’s Ari Cohn identified two problems with his argument.  First, Cohn writes, “while there may be 4,000 colleges and universities, the universe of schools to which controversial, big-name speakers are invited is likely significantly smaller.”  Second, he contends, Hiltzik’s

criticism belies a misunderstanding of the purpose of not only the database but also our disinvitation work more generally.  FIRE is concerned with disinvitations not only because of the severity of each individual incident’s impact on free speech, but also because it exemplifies a trend: students demanding freedom from speech, and demanding that any idea or expression they personally find noxious or disagreeable be kept off campus so that nobody can hear it.

With respect to the first point, Hiltzik responded in a second column that while it may be the case that only a subset of the nation’s 4,000 colleges and universities are impacted by this sort of controversy, nevertheless

FIRE’s universe is fairly inclusive.  Its database includes big campuses like Berkeley and the University of Michigan, but also places like Earlham College of Indiana (enrollment 1,019) and Anna Maria College of Massachusetts (1,462).  So what’s the real size of the “universe”?  Cohn doesn’t say.  Nor are all the targets appearing on his list “big name speakers”: They include state legislators, authors of self-published political screeds, and local activists unknown outside their homes and surrounding counties.

To this I would add that elsewhere FIRE has argued against the notion that the problem is limited to a smaller subset of institutions.  For example, in January University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Donald Moynihan published a widely-read op-ed piece in the New York Times, which argued that outside a relatively small circle of selective private institutions “like Oberlin or Yale,” conservative state legislators pose a far greater threat to academic freedom than do student protesters.  In response, FIRE’s Samantha Harris wrote that “as someone who has been tracking threats to free speech on campus for more than 11 years, I can say this is not the case [links in the original to specific examples of incidents at non-elite institutions].”  But it is impossible to have it both ways; FIRE cannot convincingly argue in one context that the universe of institutions impacted by “political correctness,” to use their term, is limited, as does Cohn, and elsewhere, as in Harris’s piece, that it is not.

With respect to Cohn’s second argument against Hiltzik, it is illogical to contend that the aim of the FIRE database is to collect incidents that “exemplify a trend” when the limitations of the list itself actually suggest that the trend, insofar as it can be documented, is not all that impressive.  It would seem that FIRE has actually assumed a priori that a trend exists and now seeks anecdotal evidence to confirm that assumption rather than compiling evidence sufficient to test it.

Hiltzik concludes:

Cohn disputes my assertion that a speaker’s fitness to appear on campus at all should be a legitimate topic of discussion, debate, and reconsideration.  He writes: “Those extending campus speaking invitations are surely tasked with determining from whom they would like to hear. … Once the inviting party has determined that they would like to hear out a particular speaker, it is certainly not the place of others on campus to determine for them whether or not such a speaker is ‘qualified.’”

Here he begs an important question.  “Tasked” by whom?  At many campuses, almost anyone can invite a speaker, provided that a free classroom or hall can be found for the event.  Surely not everyone tendering an invitation is doing so in the name of the university.  Judgments of who’s “qualified” to speak at a campus venue are made all the time on virtually every campus.  Why any one individual’s decision to offer a platform to any speaker should necessarily be the last word, immune from criticism, objection, or revocation, is a mystery, and Cohn doesn’t solve it.

Anecdotes can be useful, but not when they deflate at the slightest poking.

The point here is not to dismiss the significance of those incidents in which speakers have been truly “disinvited” or even silenced, in some instances violently.  As Campos writes in response to those he labels the “Middlebury Morons,”

(1) College students who exercise a heckler’s veto — that is, who don’t merely protest, but actually try to shut down a speaker at an institutionally-sanctioned event — should be punished (in the wake of adequate due process of course) by their college or university. Such punishment might include expulsion from the school under certain circumstances.

(2) Physical assault should be prosecuted.

The issue, however, is not the legitimacy of the problem but how extensive it is — whether these incidents are, as Carter put it, “everyday events” — and, in addition, where the problem ranks among the full panoply of threats to free expression and academic freedom on college and university campuses.

Moynihan clearly spoke for thousands of faculty members at public colleges and universities when he wrote that “my colleagues and I have been given much more reason to worry about the ideological agendas of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards” than the actions of censorious student protesters.  “Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate.  One group has much more power than the other.”

“Policy makers who accuse students of weakening campus speech should lead by example,” Moynihan concluded.  “Free speech on campus has survived and will survive challenges from students and other members of civil society.  Its fate is much less certain when the government decides to censor discomforting views.”

Back in early January, responding to an op-ed by José A. Cabranes, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit who argued that “academic freedom now attracts opposition largely from the left,” I wrote:

this contention seems bizarre at the least, given the impending Trump presidency; right-wing Republican control of both houses of Congress and the majority of state legislatures and governorships; intensified assaults by rightist politicians on faculty rights in Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and especially Wisconsin; the widespread intimidation on social media of left-leaning scholars by right-wing “trolls;” the campaign of intimidation waged by the right on prominent academic climate scientists; the emergence of new blacklists of “liberal” and “anti-zionist” scholars, like the Professor Watchlist; not to mention cases like that of Steven Salaita and Melissa Click, dismissed by their universities under pressure from conservative forces resulting in AAUP censure.  Indeed, one wonders how much of a threat something called “the left” could be to virtually anything these days.

To this list I could add the potential impact of President Trump’s proposed travel ban, should it survive judicial scrutiny; attacks on undocumented students, especially those in the DACA program; the growing practice of out-sourced compulsory course redesign; proposals to abandon or limit tenure; and the threat to academic freedom posed by the spread of so-called “campus carry” laws, which allow individuals to carry concealed weapons onto college and university campuses, including in some cases into classrooms and dormitories; as well as the dangers posed by violent threats by white supremacists and attacks on student media discussed earlier in this post.

In an April Twitter thread CUNY professor Angus Johnston listed a number of threats to academic freedom discussed in a workshop on the topic at a national meeting of unionized faculty, in which “Ann Coulter’s name didn’t come up”:

  • Administrators interfering with faculty members’ attempts to share information with campus boards of trustees.
  • The challenges in protecting student and faculty free speech rights in the classroom.
  • Attempts to roll back or compromise faculty control over curriculum
  • Threats to professors’ freedom to criticize their own institutions
  • Faculty misunderstanding of the scope and limits of academic freedom.
  • Administrators’ and legislators’ use of budgeting power to constrain professors’ freedom of speech and inquiry.

He concluded, “Some of these reflect profs’ concerns about restrictions on their own freedoms, others [are] worries about violation of students’ rights.  And none of them is likely to gain any serious attention from the nation’s self-appointed media champions of campus free speech. . . .  There’s a lot happening right now around academic freedom and campus free speech that the media is missing.”

In this context it is difficult to accept the notion that attempts by protesting students to silence controversial speakers — however inappropriate and foolish — are even near the top of the list of threats to academic freedom and free expression on campus more generally.  One might, for example, contrast the attention paid to the rights of Yiannopoulos and Coulter to speak at Berkeley with this incident at the same institution, recounted in the journal Jacobin:

During all the Milo campus riot talk, who remembered UC Berkeley’s suspension of a one-unit ethnic studies course on Palestine last semester?  The student-instructor, twenty-two-year-old Paul Hadweh, had spent months preparing the course syllabus, going through all the right channels to get the course approved, only to find out — from a friend watching Israel Channel 10 — that his class was under scrutiny and Israeli government officials had “covertly” intervened.  A few hours later he was informed by his faculty adviser that the course had been summarily suspended.  Twenty-six students were left scampering to make up the unit weeks into the semester.

UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks declared that the course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing.”  His statement echoed the complaints of pro-Israel advocacy groups, forty-three of which had written to Dirks calling the course “partisan” and “political indoctrination,” and even raised McCarthyite alarms, accusing Paul of being “an active member” of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

A week later, after public outcry, the university reinstated the class.

Or consider this “report from the frontlines of the free speech wars” by Danielle S. Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, in the Harvard Crimson:

In March, my name and photo were posted at Professor Watchlist.  The site announces: “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the…names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”  In my case, the website claims, “She said that the rise of Donald Trump is just like the rise of Hitler.”  The website links to a February 2016 op-ed that I wrote as a Washington Post contributing columnist.

I wrote: “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany.  Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand.  Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate.  That is not my point.  My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country.”

The site provides no documentation of my having made arguments comparing Trump to Hitler in the classroom—because there is none.  I have never made such a comparison in class, not even in the attenuated form in my opinion piece. . . .

I treasure academic freedom but also believe that teachers should avoid politicizing the classroom.  To my mind, full-throated political engagement belongs on op-ed pages and in the hard work of citizenship.  That said, faculty members should not be “watchlisted” if they make other judgments than mine about how to deploy academic freedom.

My watchlisting did not, of course, end with the website.  Site founder, Charlie Kirk, appeared with Tucker Carlson on Fox News to highlight his postings.  Alongside a broadcast of my photo, Kirk said this: “She wrote an op-ed.  She made a very flawed argument. She teaches this in class.  That the rise of Donald Trump can be directly paralleled to the rise of Adolf Hitler.  This is a Harvard Professor.  She teaches that we can learn a lot from this rise of Donald Trump and this populist rise because actually it is very similar to that of Adolf Hitler.”

I don’t think Kirk actually knows anything about what I teach.  His claim is simply false.  So what’s he up to?  Why watchlist me in 2017 for a February 2016 article? . . .

Whatever the motive, the posting and broadcast brought me vile emails, tweets, and the following two anonymous voicemails:

“Hey, you f*****g c**t, you.  Professor Watchlist b***h.”

“Yeah, yeah, Danielle.  You’re a lowlife f*****g n****r motherf*****g c**t, you know that?  Saying what you say about Trump.  You f*****g n****r b***h. F*****g scum.  I hope he pisses on your grave some day.  Ah, you’ll outlive him but maybe his kid will piss on your f*****g grave and shit on it.”

Free speech is under threat.  In early March, I wrote an op-ed criticizing Middlebury protesters and praising Charles Murray for courage.  I believe that bad arguments should be defeated with better ones, not shut down by violent protest or blocked with profanity and ad hominem attacks.  At Harvard, a student group has sprung up to sponsor controversial speakers and to challenge spreading protest dynamics.  I concur with the need to reclaim space for free speech.  And free speech also needs protection from assaults from the right.

Allen is hardly alone (see, for additional examples, here and here.)

It’s not only faculty; students too may become targets.  For example, according to press reports, “after American University elected the first African-American woman to lead its student body, the white supremacist leader who founded one of the largest hate sites on the internet began an online campaign to troll her and her sorority with racist taunts.”  Andrew Anglin, neo-Nazi founder of the Daily Stormer website, posted pictures and video of Taylor Dumpson, along with links to her Facebook account and American University’s Twitter address.  The university provided police protection for Dumpson.

Yet no one is compiling an harassment database to parallel FIRE’s database of “disinvitations,” perhaps because it would likely be far too lengthy and unwieldy and the victims of such activity often and understandably want to avoid further public attention.  The AAUP has been collecting accounts of online targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty, but promises anonymity to anyone who submits information.  If you have been targeted, please go here.

Moreover, it’s by no means clear that attacks on outside speakers are even mainly directed against avowed conservatives.  For instance, Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was forced to cancel two speeches after she received violent threats from the right wing.  The threats began after Fox News covered her May 30 commencement speech at Hampshire College, in which she called Donald Trump “a racist, sexist megalomaniac.”

“Since last Friday, I have received more than 50 hate-filled and threatening emails,” she said in a May 31 statement.  “Some of these emails have contained specific threats of violence, including murder.  I have been threatened with lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head.”

The AAUP issued a statement calling on Princeton “to speak out clearly and forcefully in defense of the rights of faculty and students, generally, and Professor Taylor, specifically.”  But Taylor’s situation garnered considerably less attention than did the efforts to deny platforms to Murray, Coulter, and Yiannopoulos.  “There are no columns in The New York Times or The Atlantic or New York magazine,” wrote Sarah Jones in The New Republic. “There are no fevered tweets, no hand-wringing on her behalf.  Instead, we have yet another Times column about the excesses of college liberals.”

Concluded Jones: “Coverage of free speech fights in the U.S. casts the left as illiberal antagonists and lets the right off the hook for its own, much more serious history of censorship.  By defending Charles Murray, and not Taylor, the media has shown some revealing inconsistencies in its concerns about free speech.”  (It should be acknowledged that among those who did come to Taylor’s defense in the media was FIRE’s Samantha Harris in a piece entitled “Charles Murray gets attacked? Outrage! A liberal professor gets threatened? Silence.”)

Or take the case of Linda Sarsour, one of the most prominent Muslim-American activists in New York.  A lead organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, Sarsour was scheduled to deliver a commencement address to about 100 students at the City University of New York School of Public Health when she began receiving threats.

“Linda Sarsour is a Sharia-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb of progressive horror,” Milo Yiannopoulos told a rally outside CUNY’s main office, as protesters held signs with racist and anti-Semitic images.  Yiannopoulos briefly acknowledged Sarsour’s right to speak, thereby avoiding — albeit barely — the obvious charge of hypocrisy, but he still managed to get in a racist joke about her getting paid in goats.

Opposition to Sarsour’s speech began with Dov Hikind, a conservative Democratic state assembly member who represents a largely Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.  Hikind said Sarsour should not have been chosen, pointing to her recent appearance in Chicago with Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted in Israel of playing a role in the bombing of a supermarket that killed two civilians in 1969.  His opposition drew coverage in Jewish publications and the conservative media.  Hikind’s office also circulated a letter signed by 100 Holocaust survivors asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cancel the address.

However, a group of Jewish leaders issued a statement calling the attacks on Sarsour “dangerous, disingenuous and counterproductive, undermining core Jewish values of compassion, humility and human dignity.”  They continued,

We may not agree with Sarsour on all matters.  We do not offer our stamp of approval to every tweet or message she has ever posted.  But in this time, when so many marginalized communities in our country are targeted on the streets and from the highest offices of government, we are committed to bridging communal boundaries and standing in solidarity with one another.  With Sarsour and others, we work as allies on issues of shared concern and respectfully disagree when our views diverge.

We will not stand by as Sarsour is falsely maligned, harassed and smeared, as she, her organization and her family suffer vicious public threats and intimidation.

“There are a few people who have been very effective in branding the left at shutting down free speech, but the moment they are confronted with leftist speech they don’t like, they are equally outraged and poised to suppress that speech,” Fred Smith Jr., a constitutional scholar and assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, told the New York Times.  “I don’t think that’s the answer for either side. The more you try to suppress speech, the more the ideas of the suppressed speaker become salient to more people.  It makes the person more well known and attracts more people to those ideas.”

The conclusion from all this is that while attacks on the right of controversial figures to speak on campus pose a problem that needs to be addressed, the problem cannot be said to be limited to attacks by “the Left” against those with more conservative views.  Nor can such attacks be said to merit greater attention than quite a few other challenges to free expression and academic freedom that have, as yet, attracted far less public notice, several of which pose considerably more ominous dangers to free expression on campus.  Indeed, to suggest that threats to outside speakers comprise the main threat to free expression and academic freedom on campus today is to exaggerate and mislead.

This is the second of a four-part series.  Part I may be found here




2 thoughts on “On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part II

  1. Pingback: On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part III | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: On Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom, Part IV | ACADEME BLOG

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