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Harvey Silverglate on the [Ableist Slur] Response to Smith College Panel on Free Speech

Back in September, lawyer and FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer was accused of committing “an explicit act of racial violence” when, in a panel discussion on free speech hosted by Smith College, she said the word “nigger” out loud. Speaking about the word itself and not directing the slur at anybody, she argued that, in many contexts, censorship of the word serves no purpose.

Yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, FIRE co-founder and chairman Harvey Silverglate put critics’ responses to Kaminer in context, writing about the hypersensitivity pervading college campuses and chilling open debate. He wrote:

On campuses across the country, hostility toward unpopular ideas has become so irrational that many students, and some faculty members, now openly oppose freedom of speech. The hypersensitive consider the mere discussion of the topic of censorship to be potentially traumatic. Those who try to protect academic freedom and the ability of the academy to discuss the world as it is are swimming against the current. In such an atmosphere, liberal-arts education can’t survive.

Indeed, some students’ desire to shield their peers from potentially hurtful words is hindering conversations about racism and sexism, among other things.

So what exactly happened at Smith? Smith President Kathleen McCartney, moderating the panel, asked about the line between free speech and hate speech. Torch readers know such a line doesn’t exist. Kaminer said, regarding what’s allowed in the classroom, that there’s a difference between students cursing at each other and students using words in the context of a discussion—for example, talking about the use of “the n-word” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. She prompted the audience: “When I say, ‘n-word,’ … what word do you all hear in your head?” and proceeded to repeat the answer she got from the audience, remarking that “nothing horrible happened” when she did so. Some students, however, not only condemned Kaminer for uttering the word but also argued that McCartney should have intervened.

Smith’s student newspaper The Smith Sophian later published a transcript of the panel that both prefaces the content with a trigger warning and censors a number of potentially explicit words, to the point that, in some cases, it’s not clear at first glance what was said. This censored transcript is therefore itself an excellent example of how censorship hurts dialogue. All instances of “nigger” are written as “[n-word].” Kaminer’s use of the word “cunt”—which she used one time, to clarify a student’s reference to “the c-word,” was written as “[c-word],” resulting in this line in the transcript:

WK: And by, “the c-word,” you mean the word [c-word]?

Clarification was evidently needed, considering that another c-word was also censored from the transcript:

Kathleen McCartney: … We’re just wild and [ableist slur], aren’t we?

That’s right, wild and crazy. It took my colleagues and me a moment to figure that one out (it is audible in the audio recording of the panel). Despite this word apparently being too offensive to reproduce in the transcript, it was spoken by all three of the other panelists besides Kaminer, in addition to President McCartney.

This kind of censorship serves only to distract from the real dialogue that was happening among panel members and the audience at Smith. It is the Sophian’s editors’ prerogative to cut words from its reporting, but to do so is counterproductive. Newspapers exist to provide information, and censorship inhibits that goal. It also cannot be justified in the name of safety, since no reasonable person could interpret the publication of an accurate transcript as threatening.

As Harvey notes in his article, though, Smith students are not alone in taking trigger warnings and censorship to an absurd level. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “climate survey” on sexual assault given to students has a trigger warning, potentially discouraging students from even opening the survey. And as I reported last week, some students at Knox College in Illinois expected a more robust shield from a poster on sexual assault headed with the words “Trigger Warning.”

Harvey warns, “Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement—a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day.” How much of a conversation has to devolve into code words and euphemisms before advocates for censorship see the damage it is doing?

Read the rest of Harvey’s article in The Wall Street Journal.

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