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​Jim Sleeper Gets It Wrong in ‘The New York Times’

By September 4, 2016

This morning, readers across the country woke up to a New York Times op-ed by Yale University lecturer Jim Sleeper that contains patently false charges about FIRE and me.

I’ve deliberately ignored Sleeper’s multiple screeds over the past year. He’s posted thousands of words at outlets like Salon and Alternet attacking me, Jonathan Haidt, Conor Friedersdorf, Todd Gitlin, Jeannie Suk, and others, and he has bizarrely attempted to weave FIRE into his labyrinthine critiques of Citizens United and American capitalism. (I urge readers to check out Sleeper’s weird diatribes for themselves; they’re really something. Here’s a representative example from Salon, a 6,000-plus-word extravaganza.) But since The New York Times made the choice to publish a distilled version of the conspiracy theories he’s written elsewhere—apparently without fact-checking—I must respond.

In his op-ed, Sleeper claims that the video of the confrontation at Yale last fall between professor Nicholas Christakis and a number of angry students “was shot by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and posted under a headline, ‘Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor,’ with photos of her and her parents’ suburban Connecticut home.”

Anyone reading the sentence would believe not only that I shot the video, which I did, but also that I identified the student and gratuitously posted irrelevant photos of her family’s home. That’s simply a lie. The article Sleeper refers to was published by The Daily Caller after the video went viral. FIRE has never released the name of any of the students involved in the confrontation. Indeed, I’ve been publicly critical of The Daily Caller for doing so.

Sleeper knows that FIRE didn’t name or dig up photos of the student or her house; the source of the article is correctly identified in one of his Alternet rants. I caught the flagrant misrepresentation on Saturday, and I immediately wrote The New York Times for a correction. The paper quickly issued one, changing the online version of Sleeper’s truth-challenged attack to read slightly more honestly. (I would note that few have done more to spread the identity of the young woman in the Yale video than Jim Sleeper, who has repeatedly linked to reports that include her name.) Disappointingly, however, the print version that perhaps hundreds of thousands of readers peruse every Sunday morning repeats this false claim. A print correction is promised for next week.

Of course, this isn’t the only thing that Sleeper gets wrong. As he has done before, Sleeper attempts to present FIRE as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, conveniently ignoring the incredible political diversity of our staff and the many, many cases in which we have fought for speakers and expression popular on the left, as well as speech that’s popular with practically no one at all. An honest reading of our case archives attests to this. As FIRE’s Will Creeley wrote just last month:

To be clear: FIRE defends student and faculty speech regardless of the viewpoint expressed or the speaker’s identity. If expression is protected by the First Amendment, FIRE defends it—period. That means we defend Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Democratic Socialists, and those affiliated with no party at all; Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists; environmental activists, animal rights activists, pro-choice activists, anti-rape activists, anti-war activists, and LGBT activists; free market advocates, pro-life activists, anti-immigration activists, and anti-affirmative action activists; student reporters, student government members, adjunct faculty, and tenured professors; and many, many more. FIRE even stands ready to protect the expressive rights of those who call for censorship, though we flatly disagree with those advocates’ goals.

Sleeper also pretends that we never wrote anything positive about protests at Yale. That’s not true, either.

Sleeper conveniently omits the fact that his colleagues Nicholas and Erika Christakis, the students’ targets in the Yale video, did ultimately step down from their positions as residential advisors at the Silliman House. Erika no longer teaches at Yale. As I wrote in The Washington Post, this result represents Yale’s failure to live up to its promises of free speech.

Readers should know that we have tried multiple times to engage Sleeper in good faith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s ignored the mountains of facts about our work to refute his simplistic narrative. I have no doubt that Sleeper will continue to peddle his inaccurate claims to as many outlets as he can dupe into publishing them. But forcing campus speech controversies to conform to his predetermined political conclusions—at the expense of the facts—does readers a grave disservice.