Who Are the Censors?

By June 10, 2005

In today’s increasingly polarized political world, one of the most frequent questions from media, from supporters, and from students is: “Who are the censors?” Sometimes the question is more explicitly partisan: “What side is censoring more?” The question is rarely asked for the purpose of receiving an honest answer and instead designed to make a point. Conservatives want to prove that leftists are the problem on campus while liberals often want to prove that FIRE’s not actually nonpartisan if the answer is anything other than “both sides are equally to blame.” Before I begin, it is important to point out that “left” and “right” are inherently difficult and often overly simplistic terms. I’ve often heard people say things like, “he’s so left he’s right” or “I’m left on social issues but right on economic issues.” Some people throw up their hands and just say, “I don’t know what I am.” The fact remains, however, that most individuals identify themselves somewhere on a political spectrum based on left/right boundaries and distinctions and also attach great meaning and purpose to such distinctions. When we say “left” or “right” we of course don’t capture all the nuance of an individual, but the term is still meaningful and informative. It is also crucial to note that when I use the term “left” or “right” in this post, I use it in the sense of self-identification —how does the individual identify himself or herself? I am not opining as to that individual’s “true” nature. Some would argue, for example, that there is nothing inherently “left” in shutting down an affirmative action protest, but it is true that those who are stopping such protests do not tend to identify as conservative.  Censors are, almost by necessity, individuals with power. A president of a university cannot be censored by a student. That person may dislike what the president says, and he may argue vociferously that the president should be silent, but he does not have the actual authority to silence the president—unless he can appeal to a higher authority, such as the university’s trustees. If you are a student or faculty member on campus, and you are censored, it is always because someone with more institutional power or authority has exercised that power in a way that actually violates your civil liberties. The one possible exception to that rule is the “heckler’s veto,” when protestors may shout down speakers or steal newspapers. In that circumstance, the censor has effectively seized power for a moment—imposing his or her will on a campus. But even then, those in power have the responsibility to respond effectively to such actions. If an administration ignores newspaper theft, then it becomes, essentially, a partner to the censors.  Given the reality that censorship follows power, then it simply makes sense when I say—as I often do—that 80 to 85% of FIRE’s cases involve censorship from the left. Those who self-identify as left-of-center far outnumber self-identified conservatives in administrations and faculties. This fact has been amply documented. In other words, on campus, the self-identified left has more power. It is the majority. This is, of course, not true in larger society. To be clear, when I say censorship “from the left,” it does not always follow that the victim of censorship is conservative. Sometimes the political point of view is unknown and irrelevant (think of the University of New Hampshire’s Tim Garneau and his joke about women’s weight) and sometimes the object of censorship is a fellow member of the left (think of the University of Alaska’s Linda McCarriston and her poem about sexual abuse in the Native American community). Further, there are times when the political perspective of the censors is unknown, but they are enthusiastically applying a speech code that is unquestionably a product of self-described progressives. (For example, were the individuals who ordered pro-military posters torn down at Shippensburg University actually liberal? Or were they simply feeling duty-bound to enforce a speech code promulgated by leftists on campus?) At FIRE, I have seen the following pattern: When on-campus censorship comes from a campus source (e.g., from the faculty or administration), then it typically—but not always—comes from the self-identified left. When on-campus censorship comes from an off-campus source (e.g, from a congressman calling for a professor’s termination), the censorship typically—but not always—comes from the self-identified right. This reality is broadly reflective of the differences in the power balances in the larger society and on campus. Since the larger political culture pays only sporadic attention to campus events—usually arousing itself only when the speech at issue is perceived to be particularly sensational—the vast majority of our cases involve actions by campus administrators against faculty, students, and student groups.  What does all this mean? I take it to mean that neither side, of course, has a monopoly on censorship. The Republican establishment in Colorado did not cover itself in glory when it called for Ward Churchill’s termination for engaging in provocative, constitutionally protected speech. Nor have certain New York politicians responded appropriately to Joseph Massad at Columbia in their calling for his termination based on his point of view. At the same time, the speech codes that exist at most colleges and universities were not written by the right, and it is not the right that is systematically attacking religious liberty on campus. It is simply the case—and it has always been the case—that those in power are strongly tempted to suppress dissent. It is simply the case—and it has always been the case—that the rights of the majority in any particular culture (or subculture, such as a university) are rarely imperiled by the democratic process in that culture. Power corrupts, and minority rights, including the right of a minority to dissent, must be constantly and vigilantly protected. The conservative movement—in addition to pointing out the legitimate rights of conservative students to protest, for example, affirmative action—should take care that it upholds and defends the constitutional rights of even its most bitter opponents. And there are certainly many conservatives who are consistent defenders of liberty. Similarly, the progressive movement—in addition to vigilantly guarding the rights of professors to dissent, for example, from certain aspects of the War on Terror—should also actively defend the rights of its opponents, including pro-war advocates. And there are certainly many liberals who are consistent defenders of liberty.  The natural desire for your partisan side to look good in the public eye (and the natural inclination to think the best of our friends and the worst of our perceived enemies) should never get in the way of core principles, nor should it obscure your view of the facts. It is simply the truth that more campus censorship comes from the self-identified left. Is that statement of fact an excuse for dismissing FIRE as “partisan?” Or a part of a “right-wing assault” on campus? Of course not. Likewise, it is simply the truth that off-campus calls for censorship come more from the right. Stating this truth does not render FIRE so “liberal” that we (well, I) need to be “skewered” (to quote one disgruntled letter-writer).  FIRE’s goal is truth and consistency. We will never be perfect, but we do our best to “call it as we see it” and to never, ever turn down a legitimate cry for help on the grounds that any one of us disagree with the underlying viewpoint of the speaker.