In late 2014, members of Clemson University’s Coalition of Concerned Students (CCS) were setting the stage for what would become a louder drumbeat of campus protests over allegedly racially insensitive behavior. Their list of demands, presented to Clemson administrators in an effort to rectify perceived racial inequality on campus, were among the first in the recent wave of such demands to be presented by students to administrators at dozens of colleges nationwide.
But among the students’ seven demands—which included requests for increased affirmative action, the creation of a multicultural center as a “safe space” for minority students, and diversity training for staff and freshmen—the first demand stood out to Professor C. Bradley Thompson. And for all the wrong reasons.
It read, in relevant part:
[W]e want a public commitment from the Clemson University Administration to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media).
Thompson, a political science professor and executive director of The Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, strongly objected to CCS’ demand that the university criminally prosecute certain kinds of constitutionally protected speech. (It’s worth noting that this request is technically impossible, given that universities cannot legally prosecute crimes.) But it wasn’t until January of this year, when Thompson heard that 110 faculty had signed on to support the full list of student demands—including the speech provision that would have serious repercussions for speech and academic freedom—that Thompson decided to do something about it.
“We wanted it to be about the statement.”
“I got wind that a faculty group was going to take out a full-page ad in the student newspaper, The Tiger, in which they were going to support the demands of the Coalition of Concerned Students,” Thompson said. “So I very quickly wrote a response that would be titled ‘An Open Letter to Clemson Students.’” With only 24 hours to spare, Thompson got two other faculty members—astronomy and physics professor Bradley Meyer, along with Alan Grubb in the history department—to sign his letter.
“We didn’t have time to go out and get 100 signatures, which I’m sure we could’ve,” Thompson said. “But it also seemed to me that the statement would’ve been more powerful if it were just the three of us. We didn’t want it to be about names. We didn’t want it to be about who could put the biggest list together. We wanted it to be about the statement.”
Thompson said the morning the newspaper came out “was kind of a dramatic moment—a very dramatic moment—on campus.”
“In the very same issue in which [the other faculty’s] full-page ad appeared, our full-page ad appeared as well, unbeknownst to them. So they opened the student newspaper and on the inside cover page, they very proudly saw their full-page ad, supporting the notion that the university should prosecute criminally defamatory speech. They turned the page, and there was our full-page ad defending Clemson students and their right to freedom of thought, conscience, inquiry, speech, et cetera, et cetera.”
More important was the resulting discussion, during which Thompson said “large swaths of the campus rallied in support of our open letter to Clemson students.”
Numerous students wrote letters to the editor, including William Turton, a political science major and chairman of Young Americans for Freedom at Clemson.
“I saw the open letter,” Turton said, “and also started writing some letters to the editor expressing my feelings that you should protect free speech even if people do get offended. You can’t solve anything by banning speech. And who decides which speech is offensive and which speech is not?”
A Personal Promise: Professor to Student
The letter itself stands out among various commitments to free expression typically made by college and university administrators, because this one comes directly from specific faculty members, as a personal promise: professor to student.
“The letter makes very clear,” Thompson explained, “that we are committed for all time, through our time at Clemson university … that we will defend our students’ freedom of speech, no matter what. The open letter was written as a pledge to students. Even if it’s just the three of us, we will defend their freedom of speech.”
Thompson said he doesn’t have any particular background in First Amendment advocacy.
“I’m not a lawyer or a constitutional law scholar,” Thompson said, “but I care about the university, American universities in general, and the intellectual culture at those universities. It’s always struck me that if a university isn’t about free speech, then it’s not a university. It’s something else. If we lose the right to free speech, which includes the right to free inquiry as well, then we lose the university.”
Bradley Meyer, one of the three faculty to sign the open letter, said the response to the letter has been positive.
“We had emails, especially from parents of Clemson students, thanking us for the letter,” Meyer said. “We [also] had a couple of the people at the university sending us emails thanking us.”
Thompson agrees that the letter got people really thinking about the consequences of the student demands to punish certain kinds of protected speech. He said that “several faculty members that had signed the larger, faculty petition were subsequently embarrassed that they had signed” because they had not read it closely and didn’t realize they were advocating punishment of protected speech.
That’s something Thompson predicts would signal disaster, not just at Clemson, but for the everywhere.
“If you believe as I do that ideas have consequences, what happens on American college campuses will eventually percolate its way down and through the culture as a whole. And if we lose free speech on college campuses, we will eventually lose free speech in the country.”