Missouri Controversy Highlights Academia’s Free Speech struggle

November 15, 2015

By Aamer Madhani and Roger Yu at USA Today

As college administrators across the country move to crack down on hate speech on campus, First Amendment advocates say that universities are becoming increasingly squeamish about exposing students to ideas that they may find offensive or collide with their world view

In a nationwide poll published by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale University last month, 50% of students said they often felt intimidated to offer views that differ from their classmates’ or professors’. Sixty-three percent of students said that they thought political correctness was a problem on campus, while 50% said they favor their school banning political cartoons on campus that criticize a particular religion or ethnicity.

“We’ve had a patronizing attitude toward students of this generation,” said Greg Lukianoff, CEO of advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “We told them they’re fragile or they’re harmed if they’re exposed to harsh ideas. So we’re surprised when you see students who have a hard time disagreeing productively. This is the older generation’s fault. We have not been properly explaining the value of pluralism and the value of free speech.”

The issue has been put into sharp focus in the aftermath of series of recent incidents at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Yale University, and other campuses.

At Missouri, a series of events following the ouster of university system president Tim Wolfe and Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin this week has spotlighted the difficult balance academia faces as it struggles to meet competing demands from increasingly diverse student bodies.

Wolfe and Loftin were pushed out after weeks of protests by African-American students who were critical of their handling of a series of racially charged incidents on campus. But it wasn’t until subsequent demonstrations and efforts by campus police to calm tensions following the administrators’ ouster that the university forged into dicey areas when it comes to the First Amendment.

First, a video surfaced of faculty, staff and students berating journalists and physically trying to remove a photographer from a public area on campus where protesters with the group Concerned Student 1950 set up a campsite.

Video showed the director of Greek Life, Janna Basler, screaming at a photographer to leave the area and later showed her and others physically forcing the journalist to back away from the campsite, even as the photographer noted his First Amendment right to be there. The same video showed an assistant professor of mass communications, Melissa Click, calling for “muscle” to help her eject the student journalist filming them and appeared to show her grabbing at his camera.

The university subsequently announced it had put Basler on administrative leave while it investigated her actions. Click was forced to resign from a courtesy appointment at the university’s Journalism School, but remains on the faculty at the Department of Communication.

On Tuesday, with tensions high on social media a day after Wolfe’s ouster, the university’s campus police encouraged students to report any “hateful and/or hurtful speech” to the police department.

The police department in an email to students acknowledged that “hurtful speech are not crimes,” but also noted that “if the individual(s) identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.”

Lukianoff’s group FIRE called the “statement deeply problematic” in a letter that was sent to the university on Thursday, noting, there is no question that a great deal of “hateful and/or hurtful speech” is protected by the First Amendment

Chuck Henson, interim chancellor for inclusion, said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday that it was a “mistake … to get into hurtful speech.”

“That is part of what we tolerate as part of a community of this country,” he said. “Short of those very ugly things becoming or crossing over into a threat or some kind of violence, there’s a broad area of tolerance for politically incorrect speech.”

The push by police at Missouri to encourage students to report “hurtful speech” comes weeks after a Yale University lecturer, Erika Christakis, came under an avalanche of criticism for questioning whether an email sent to students from Yale’s intercultural affairs committee urging students to be sensitive in their choice of Halloween costumes was at odds with students’ right to free expression.

Christakis and her husband, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, have faced angry confrontations from students, some of whom have called on them to leave the university.

Universities plainly have a legitimate interest in maintaining an environment where it protects its core missions of teaching, learning and research, said Ron Krotoszynski Jr., professor of law at the University of Alabama. But at the same time, universities can’t pursue maintaining that environment without regard to First Amendment rights, he said.

“The Yale situation seems distinguishable, because reasonable people can disagree about the meaning of a Halloween costume,” Krotoszynski said. “Also, I’m not sure telling undergraduates that life is going to present them with people and ideas that make them uncomfortable is in itself self-evidently racist.”

The debate on campus speech has percolated at other colleges and universities in recent months.

Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students, Mary Spellman, announced on Thursday that she would resign from her post at the California institution after she sparked campus protests due to saying in an email to a Latina student that she would work to serve those “who don’t fit our CMC mold.”

The University of Illinois also announced Thursday that it would pay a $600,000 settlement to Steven Salaita, an American Indian studies scholar who had a job offer with the university rescinded last year after students, donors and parents complained to the administration about a string of anti-Israel comments he had posted on social media. The payout, which includes an additional $275,000 for Salaita’s attorneys, comes after the professor filed a federal lawsuit against the university alleging breach of contract and violation of his free speech rights.

Last month, the student government at Wesleyan College in Connecticut voted to reduce funding of the student newspaper after editors ran a column from a student criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Earlier this year, Crafton Hills College, a California community college, briefly said it would includea “trigger warning” on a class syllabus to warn students that they might be offended by the content of two graphic novels that students would be reading after getting complaints from one student and her parents.

The works in question were the critically acclaimed Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which tells the story of how a lesbian woman came to accept her sexuality, and Persepolis, which details the author’s life growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Crafton officials later reversed their decision to include the trigger warning after facing criticism from free speech advocates.

Incoming freshmen at Duke University also raised objections about Fun Home earlier this year.

In April, the University of Michigan cancelled a showing of the film American Sniper,which stars Bradley Cooper portraying Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, after hundreds of students and faculty signed a petition that complained that the movie offered an unfair portrayal of Muslims. After facing criticism from other students, the university reversed its position and showed the movie. The university’s vice president of student life, E. Royster Harper, called the original decision to cancel the showing a mistake.

Some comedians, including Larry David, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, say they now try to avoid playing college venues. Seinfeld said in a June radio interview that other comics warn him to avoid not to “go near colleges — they’re so PC (politically correct).”

Salman Rushdie, the writer who spent a decade on the run after Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered a death sentence against him for offending Muslim sensibilities with his novel Satanic Verses, expressed exasperation about efforts on campus by students and administrators to protect themselves from speech they may find offensive.

“The university is the place where young people should be challenged every day, where everything they know should be put into question, so that they can think and learn and grow up,” Rushdiesaid earlier this week at a literary festival hosted by the Chicago Tribune.

“And the idea that they should be protected from ideas that they might not like is the opposite of what a university should be. It’s ideas that should be protected, the discussion of ideas that should be given a safe place. The university should be a safe space for the life of the mind. That’s what it’s for.”

Schools: Duke University University of Illinois at Chicago University of Missouri – Columbia University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Yale University University of Alabama Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email