Unlearning Liberty at ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education’

By on May 9, 2012

FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s upcoming book Unlearning Liberty explores how higher education has trouble dealing with differing opinions in a tolerant and sophisticated way—a culture that FIRE has been fighting against since our founding—and argues that this difficulty has real ramifications for our society. Unfortunately, recent events at The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently fired blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley following a controversial blog entry, have once again demonstrated that higher education can be averse to dissenting or unpopular opinions.

As has been covered by many bloggers, and by Riley herself in The Wall Street Journal, Riley was fired from The Chronicle‘s group blog, Brainstorm. Riley was fired after she wrote a post questioning the validity of black studies programs by citing titles of dissertations highlighted in a recent Chronicle article on black studies, and then wrote another blog post defending herself. In her second post, Riley acknowledged that she did not read the entirety of the dissertations she attacked, but argued that it would be unreasonable to expect her to do so for the purposes of writing a 500-word blog post.

At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that The Chronicle could have fired Riley for almost any reason or for no reason at all. The Chronicle is a private company, and thus is free to make the determination that its business would be harmed by keeping Riley on as a blogger, and then make a business decision to terminate her. Of course, The Chronicle is also an independent publication, and can make its own journalistic decisions about what content is and is not acceptable, and what writers it does and does not wish to employ. 

But as we often point out to universities, just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. In this case, firing Riley was the wrong call—but one that was likely inevitable, considering the culture of the higher education community that The Chronicle serves.

Consider The Chronicle‘s evolving (devolving?) response to the controversy. Editor Liz McMillen first defended Riley’s right to express her opinion and invited readers who disagreed with Riley’s entry to respond with their own opinions: 

Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity-to debate Schaefer Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit. Take a moment to read The Chronicle’s front-page story about the future of black studies, written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton and weigh in.

Please join the debate.

I could have written that myself. Rather than dump something people didn’t like down the memory hole, McMillen asked people to engage in rational and open debate about a controversial topic. Fight "bad" speech with more speech in the marketplace of ideas! Kudos from FIRE!

We should have known it couldn’t last.

About a week later, in the wake of hundreds of angry comments on Brainstorm blog entries, a petition to get The Chronicle to fire Riley that has now garnered more than 6,500 signatures, and pressure from bloggers and commentators, a chastened McMillen was singing a different tune:

When we published Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog posting on Brainstorm last week ("The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations"), several thousand of you spoke out in outrage and disappointment that The Chronicle had published an article that did not conform to the journalistic standards and civil tone that you expect from us.

We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.

We now agree that Ms. Schaefer Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle‘s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Schaefer Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

McMillen goes on to say that Brainstorm bloggers had been able to post without editors passing judgment on their posts, but that from now on, The Chronicle would "thoroughly review our editorial practices on Brainstorm and other blogs and strengthen our guidelines for bloggers."

Again, that’s their prerogative. But we’d have to be pretty credulous to simply accept the explanation that this was all about "standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles." (Also, really, opinion articles have to be "fair"? That’s odd.) Here’s fellow blogger Gina Barreca’s response to Riley’s post, dated May 5, entitled "A Silly Poem for a Silly Post." It begins:

A certain white chick—Schaefer Riley—

Decided to do something wily:

Knowing her blogs

Were going to the dogs,

She got all gnarly and smiley.

I regret to inform you that it goes on for several more stanzas in that vein. 

What’s wrong with this? Most bloggers would say, "Nothing." Blogs are not research papers. They’re often comedic, flip, sarcastic, or rants. And just as Riley is right that reading three entire dissertations in order to write a 500-word blog post would most likely be massive overkill compared to what people are expecting, you’d also be right to say that there’s nothing wrong with writing a poem mocking another blogger. But as an example of The Chronicle‘s new standard of requiring "reporting and fairness" in Brainstorm blog entries, this fails miserably.

OK, fine, you say, but obviously she was provoked by all the controversy over Riley’s posts and was upset, and this poem, which she acknowledges is silly, was the result. It’s not like she wrote this:

Romney keeps losing votes to a man who can’t even solve his own google problem, let alone run a campaign that doesn’t just sound like the mumblings of a crazy person. Rick Santorum’s no sex, no college, no separation of church and state, no kidding message is absurd, but apparently not as absurd as Romney’s incredible wealth. As Romney keeps sticking his millionaire foot in his millionaire mouth, saying things like his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs and that some of his friends own Nascar teams, voters go for the "sweet smell of Santorum." [Emphases in original.]

There’s nothing unusual about reading a blog entry like this on the Internet. I am willing to bet there are millions of them, perhaps even billions. And lots of people undoubtedly share these opinions. But this blog entry is from March 1, 2012, on The Chronicle‘s Brainstorm blog, by blogger Laurie Essig (who incidentally also had something to say about Riley’s blog entry, which she deemed "hate speech"). Put on your objective hat for a moment: Regardless of whether or not you agree with Essig, think about whether this meets any discernible "standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles."

It’s quite obvious that it doesn’t—nor do many other blog entries on Brainstorm. And before now, nobody would have expected it to. But The Chronicle‘s previously routine acceptance of this kind of rhetoric makes it pretty clear that Riley did not actually break any kind of standards for reporting and fairness—at least, any that existed at the time Riley wrote her blog entry. 

What Riley did do was express a viewpoint on a very sensitive and controversial topic in academia, and a huge chunk of academia mobilized not simply to argue with Riley about the issue, but to ensure that she no longer had a platform upon which to express her opinions. It wasn’t enough to simply convince people that they were right and the dissenter was wrong; as in so many FIRE cases, the dissenter had to be silenced in favor of those with the "right" opinions. Until our higher education culture rids itself of this compulsion, it will continue to poorly serve our students and our society at large. 

The petition urging The Chronicle to fire Riley ended with the words "Viva civility!" If, in America, "civility" comes to represent banishing your opponents from the field of debate rather than debating them openly and fairly, this nation is going to have a very serious problem.