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Feeling ‘Intimidated’ Does Not Equal ‘Intimidation’: FIRE in the ‘Columbia Spectator’

Today, Columbia University’s student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, published my piece about the ongoing controversy there surrounding the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. FIRE has already offered its opinion on the crucial issues in this case. After speaking at Columbia Law School on February 2, however, I realized that the students there needed as much guidance about what was not happening as what was. In my opening paragraph, I write:

Four months after The David Project released Columbia Unbecoming, Columbia is embroiled in a public fight over allegations against the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. The latest, longer version of the film includes more examples of what it sees as “bias,” “intimidation,” and “harassment.” While The David Project and its supporters have every right to protest and expose perceived abuses at Columbia, it is essential for all involved to understand that nothing described in the film constitutes either harassment or intimidation in any formal sense.

Preventing the abuse of the term “intimidation” is sort of a personal crusade for me. I have published on this topic before and we covered it in detail in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. Even before the opinion in Virginia v. Black, I could see how the term was expanding and how it threatened to turn into a new spin on the “right not to be offended.” It seemed that every day FIRE received more and more allegations that students, professors, even whole departments had been “intimidated” by each other’s speech. The case of Ursula Monaco is merely one remarkable example. As I wrote in my Colorado Daily piece:

Merely making someone feel “intimidated” is not a crime; indeed, almost all of our country’s most contentious political issues leave some feeling subjectively intimidated. Thankfully, this does not mean discussing those issues can be banned.

Living with free speech can be hard and the debate at Columbia certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is important to set the ground rules first. Protecting free speech for everyone allows the debate to proceed to where it should be: on the merits of each other’s arguments.

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