Table of Contents

  1. A faculty member sends an email that critiques a recent announcement from the college administration on an issue related to race, equity, and inclusion;
  2. students catch wind of the email, allege that its sender is racist, and organize campus-wide protests in response;
  3. the protesters confront the faculty member directly and demand their resignation or firing;
  4. the administration responds to the protesters’ demands with a wishy-washy statement of support for the embattled faculty member before outside pressure and criticism forces a more full-throated statement of public support.

Sound familiar?

It is much like the series of events that transpired on Yale University’s campus in fall 2015 after Erika Christakis, then-associate master of Yale’s Silliman College, responded to an email from the school’s Intercultural Affairs Council about cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes. I won’t relate the whole story here. The details are extensively documented on FIRE’s website. Suffice it to say that the story grabbed headlines and helped to start a national dialogue about free speech, academic freedom, and race on college campuses.

Now, just when we thought this story was over, Yale 2.0 appears to be unfolding on the other side of the country at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The controversy in Washington state tracks the Yale fact pattern almost precisely: a professor left embattled following an email, subsequent calls for his firing, and a national dialogue about free speech, academic freedom, and race on college campuses.

Like Yale, there isn’t a clear rights violation (at least not yet; more on that later). Rather, the controversy is indicative of normative concerns we at FIRE and others around the country have about this moment for free speech and open dialogue on campus: an unwillingness to talk across lines of difference, to have the presumption of goodwill in engaging with ideological opponents, and to solve disputes with dialogue, rather than calls for speech restrictions and firings.

The background

For those not completely up to speed on the Evergreen story, the controversy stems in large part from a March 15 email that Evergreen biology professor Bret Weinstein wrote to the college’s staff and faculty email list. He was responding to an email from Rashida N. Love, director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services, who announced the college’s plans for its long-running, annual Day of Absence and Day of Presence programming on April 12 and 13, respectively, of this year.

The Day of Absence programming is based on a play by Douglas Turner Ward in which black people disappear for one day in a Southern community and demonstrate to the remaining white residents how much they depend on their black neighbors.

But for this year’s programming at Evergreen, Love noted that the administration decided to do things differently:

Please notice that in 2017, for the first time, we are reversing the pattern of previous years; our Day of Absence program especially designed for faculty, staff, and students of color will happen on campus this year, while our concurrent program for allies will take place off campus.

To this change, Weinstein protested, responding, in part:

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles (the theme of the Douglas Turner Ward play Day of Absence, as well as the recent Women’s Day walkout), and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.

You may take this letter as a formal protest of this year’s structure, and you may assume I will be on campus on the Day of Absence. I would encourage others to put phenotype aside and reject this new formulation, whether they have ‘registered’ for it already or not. On a college campus, one’s right to speak--or to be--must never be based on skin color.

There was a subsequent back and forth on the email list between staff, faculty, and Weinstein, and the email was published in the student newspaper, but, according to Weinstein, “Day of Absence came and went almost without incident.”

The backlash

However, on May 23 — seemingly “out of the blue” — things changed. Fifty students disrupted Weinstein’s class, accused him of racism, and demanded his resignation, shouting “hey hey, ho ho, Bret Weinstein has got to go.” [UPDATE: The previously linked video clip of students demanding Weinstein's resignation has been removed from YouTube for "harassment and bullying."] According to Inside Higher Ed, graffiti reading “Fire Bret” was also found on campus, and some of the subsequent demonstrations allegedly involved impromptu searches for him.

There was also a demonstration at the campus’ Red Square that turned into a march to Evergreen’s library, where university president George Bridges’ office is located. According to The Olympian, students surrounded Bridges’ office and promised not to leave until their demands were met, including a demand that “Bret Weinstein be suspended immediately without pay but all students receive full credit.”

There were some reports that students blocked entrances to the library with furniture.

The backlash was so intense, according to Weinstein, that Evergreen’s chief of police told him that she could not protect him from protesters on campus and that her department had received and agreed to a “stand down” order from Bridges, against her better judgement. As a result, Weinstein held his biology course in a public park last week.

Defending peaceful protest even when the protesters call for censorship

The aforementioned normative issues aside, as a civil liberties matter, peaceful protests on a public college campus constitute constitutionally protected expression. The very existence of FIRE is predicated on defending students’ right to engage in precisely this sort of expression. As we said in the context of campus protests at Yale and elsewhere in 2015, we’ll defend peaceful protesters, even when the reason for the protest is to demand censorship.

That being said, we will do everything in our power to ensure that calls for censorship do not succeed in effecting censorship. We believe such calls are illiberal, misguided, and contrary to the best traditions of a liberal arts education, democracy, and a free society.

We should note, given some of the demonstrations at Evergreen, that violent or coercive protest is not protected by the First Amendment. To the extent protesters use these tactics as part of their protest, they are engaging in unlawful acts of civil disobedience. You do not have a First Amendment right to barricade people in a building, for example, or to prevent someone from leaving a conversation, as reports suggest some protesters did to Weinstein when confronting him on May 23.

In short, students have the right to engage in peaceful protest on a public college campus like Evergreen, and if the students call for censorship, we’ll defend their right to do so but will work to ensure their efforts do not succeed.

The Evergreen administration’s response

All of this raises the question: have the protesters’ efforts to punish protected expression succeeded at Evergreen?

Since the demonstrations began, the college administration has issued a couple of public statements and met with the protesters, often resulting in tense dialogue.

One of the first public statements from Bridges on Friday, May 26 responds to student protesters’ demands. The demands address a number of concerns on campus, many unrelated to FIRE’s core mission. However, in response to the demand that he suspend Weinstein, Bridges said, “We do not and will not fire any employees in response to a request.”

This is a good response from a college president, especially when the demand for censorship comes in response to protected expression. However, in response to the same demand, he went on to say:

We do take complaints seriously. We have a college non-discrimination policy which applies to all members of our community. Following any complaint of discrimination, we will conduct a full investigation. If it is found that discrimination occurred, action is taken. The nature of that action is not released because in order to protect the privacy of those involved. We recommit to the progressive discipline processes established with our union bargaining units and the State of Washington. [Emphasis added]

This expanded response is more problematic since, as FIRE has noted before, an investigation (particularly a prolonged investigation) into protected speech when protected speech is all that is at issue is itself a free speech violation. It’s unclear whether Bridges is commenting on Weinstein’s remarks or other expression that might be of a similar nature. If he is, FIRE would have concerns given that Weinstein’s comments constitute clearly protected speech.

Also of concern to FIRE is the administration’s response to this demand from the student protesters: “We demand that the video created for Day of Absence and Day of Presence that was stolen by white supremacists and edited to expose and ridicule the students and staff be taken down by the administration by this Friday.”

In response, Bridges promised yet another investigation.

“Based on conversations with the Attorney General’s office,” said Bridges, “the most likely course of action requires an investigation. We commit to launching an extensive forensic investigation of the theft of this video and to determining who stole it from the student. If that investigation yields a suspect, we will seek criminal charges against the individual in consultation with the Attorney General.”

Again, Bridges’ statement is unclear. To which video are the protesters and Bridges referring? [UPDATE: Some readers believe this Bearing video is the video in question; FIRE has not confirmed this information.] The students seem to be referencing a university-created video related to Day of Absence programming, while Bridges seems to refer to a student-created video. In any case, a video that is publicly available and edited in a way that does not meet the legal standard of actionable defamation and is consistent with fair use legal principles should not subject its creator to criminal prosecution. (We do not know if the creator of the video or videos in question is a student.)

In an updated public statement released this week after nationwide coverage of the controversy, the university was more direct in addressing calls for Weinstein’s firing:

Bret Weinstein remains a member of Evergreen’s faculty. Weinstein’s right to speak out has never been threatened and his position at the college is not in jeopardy. The college does not and will not terminate the employment of any faculty member in response to a request.  We will continue to support freedom of speech for all members of the Evergreen community.

The statement also addresses a widespread concern that the Day of Absence and Day of Presence programming was not optional. In the statement, the administration notes that “White students, faculty or staff have NEVER been asked to leave campus” and that “participation in Day of Absence and Day of Presence always has been, and always will be, entirely optional to students, staff, and faculty members.”

These more recent, clear-throated statements are welcome, and we hope the college will stand firm against any calls for speech restrictions. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation to ensure as much. The college should also reform its “red light” and “yellow light” speech codes to ensure student and faculty rights are clearly protected by campus policy moving forward.

Closing thoughts

Whatever you think of the content of Weinstein’s now infamous email, threatening a professor's safety, driving his class off campus, and demanding his firing because of his protected speech should trouble anyone who cares about the free exchange of ideas. All the more troubling should be the fact that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened on campus, and, given the environment right now, it might not be the last.

Students, faculty members, and administrators should speak out when they see basic civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech, threatened on their campuses. They should protect their rights by exercising their rights. They should not feel cowed. They should stand by others who are at risk of having their rights violated. It’s easier for rights to be violated when those who have the power to violate those rights don’t see a constituency that cares for their protection.

At the very least, echoing Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” we should be selfish in defending free speech against demands for censorship “for [our] own safety’s sake.” As Weinstein said, and the Christakises know all too well: “The campus mob came for me — and you, professor, could be next.”

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