This article appeared in New York Daily News.
The year 2015 has seen the third rails of race and sex powered up on campus — and the live wire of “sensitivity” is electrocuting intellectual freedom. Worse, in contrast with the past, when censorship typically came from above, today’s censorship drives are increasingly led not by administrators, but by students.
Yale and the University of Missouri both made headlines last week after students who started out passionately protesting allegations of racism and cultural insensitivity wound up attacking professors’ speech rights and freedom of the press.
These campuses aren’t alone. At Wesleyan last month, the student government threatened the student newspaper with financial punishment for running an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Brown students demanded their newspaper refuse space to any “ableist, classist, cissexist, heterosexist, imperialist, racist and sexist” opinions.
Northwestern subjected feminist professor Laura Kipnis to a multi-month Title IX sex discrimination investigation over a magazine article she wrote that questioned the mores of sex on campus. And Marquette is trying to strip a professor of tenure over a blog entry in which he criticized another instructor’s treatment of a student opposed to gay marriage.
Yet lessons we can draw from these episodes may point to a way forward in creating a campus culture that, instead of being an echo chamber, is truly open to disagreement and dissent.
If we want any hope of having free and frank debate in the coming years and decades, we need to get this right.
Last week, an email at Yale about Halloween costumes, of all things, exploded into a national story. Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer and associate master of Silliman College (Yale is divided into residential “colleges” instead of dorms), sent out an email to students there calling into question the wisdom and necessity of an earlier email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee that advised them on how to avoid “offensive” Halloween costumes.
Christakis’ email was hardly a callous exercise in knee-jerk contrarianism.
“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community,” she wrote. “I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”
This mild, intellectual questioning was a bridge too far for a number of Yale students, dozens of whom surrounded Professor Nicholas Christakis, Erika’s husband and the master of Silliman College, in a heated confrontation that included calls for him to resign. A video clip of part of this confrontation, taken by one of the authors of this piece (Lukianoff), went viral, with more than one million views on YouTube. The confrontation rightly left many journalists and others asking how students at one of the nation’s premier universities could have reacted so disproportionately to such a civil email.
But the events at Yale were quickly superseded in the public eye by the stunning events at the University of Missouri, where protests over perceived inaction by administrators to reported incidents of racism led both system president Tim Wolfe and flagship campus chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to announce their resignations on the same day. It was a stunning demonstration of the effectiveness of student protest, led by the group Concerned Student 1950.
Shortly after their big win, however, the protest took a bad turn, with protesters facing off against the press. A video taken by student journalist Mark Schierbecker, largely featuring student photojournalist Tim Tai, captured a disturbing scene in which protesters are heard chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go” and seen walking forward in a human chain, physically pushing Tai away from their encampment on the quad.
Tai’s (accurate) explanation to the protesters that the First Amendment gave both them and him the right to be there was dismissed and ignored. When Schierbecker broke away from the group to try to get closer to the encampment, a professor, Melissa Click, called for “muscle” to remove him and appeared to grab his camera.
Supporters of freedom of the press should find this disheartening, to say the least. There is no question that student journalists have the right to take photos in public spaces. And protesters in public cannot credibly argue that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy and should not be photographed.
Then something interesting happened. The very next day, a “PSA” flyer was seen floating around the protesters’ campsite. Signed by the Concerned Student 1950 group, it asked protesters to respect the rights of the media from then on and referred to the past day’s experience as a “teachable moment.”
Such a quick acknowledgement from Mizzou’s protesters of freedom of the press is a reassuring sign of growth and education.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the nonprofit organization for which we work, strongly supports the rights of students to peacefully protest without undue administrative or police interference. That’s why FIRE partnered with Missouri legislators just a few months ago to pass the state’s new Campus Free Expression Act, which explicitly prohibits public colleges from limiting the voices of students by quarantining protesters to small, remote free speech zones. (Virginia has also recently passed such a law, with FIRE’s help.)
But while Missouri’s protesters and its laws have moved in the right direction, Mizzou’s campus police department didn’t follow. Stunningly, last week it emailed students asking them to report “cases of hateful and hurtful speech” so that they could be referred to Mizzou’s Office of Student Conduct for disciplinary action. While the police must investigate true threats of violence, language that is merely “hateful” or “hurtful” is constitutionally protected, in part because what is hurtful to one person may not be to another and there is always value in knowing what people actually think, especially when it’s troubling or controversial.
At a public institution like Mizzou, the Constitution requires that students be allowed to speak freely without fear of being punished at the whim of a hostile listener. For university police to ignore this well-established legal principle is inexcusable.
Yale’s administration must also do better. While it issued a statement claiming support for both the protesters and free speech, it ominously failed to even mention the Christakises, the two people whose speech is most in jeopardy on campus. While students are free to call for censorship of professors — that’s free speech — Yale long ago rightly decided that it must not give in to such demands.
Given that professors caught up in nasty culture war fights often find themselves brought up on disciplinary charges or looking for a new job before long, it’s essential that Yale explicitly declare that the Christakises’ speech is protected and that they will not be disciplined or pushed out.
The Mizzou protesters’ about-face, and Professor Christakis’ refusal to give up his principles in the face of student outrage show that it’s not time to write off American higher education as a lost cause for free speech.
Still, it was a harrowing week in a disheartening year for intellectual freedom on campus — one that should serve as a wake-up call to college administrators that allowing and even encouraging campuses to become opinion echo chambers has been a huge mistake.
The stifling effect this has had on campus discourse has become so profound that even comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock now avoid campuses because students are so eager to take offense. As Rock said, students are now too “conservative … Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.” Seinfeld likewise opined that this PC attitude “hurts comedy.”
And this weekend, the documentary “Can We Take a Joke?,” which explores the impact of outrage culture on comedy on and off campus, is premiering at the Doc NYC film festival, featuring a number of other comedy notables. If even purposely amusing speech isn’t safe on campus, how can we hope for students to have the far less fun conversations about controversial topics in race, history, religion, science and politics in any productive way?
If college activists truly want to change minds, open discourse is the only way to move forward, and our universities need to start working overtime to make that possible. Adopting the University of Chicago’s recent statement on freedom of expression, which Princeton and Purdue have already done (and the New York Daily News’ editorial page has endorsed), would be a great start. Doing so would affirm a university’s responsibility “to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation.”
Teaching students to try to take shortcuts to “victory” on their issues through censorship is deceptive (it doesn’t ultimately work) and destructive (it hardens opinions and builds resentment). It’s also totally contrary to the purpose of a university, which is to serve as a place where students and faculty can test perceived truths through challenging both received wisdom and one another.
A hallmark of modern civilization is our power to retreat to perfect echo chambers of our own making. We increasingly live in communities, right down to city blocks, that are more politically homogenous than just a few decades ago. And with social media and the Internet, we can spend all day long in a perfect bubble in which our own views are repeated back to us. This may make us feel good, but it also polarizes, alienates, and leads us to see those with whom we disagree as simply stupid or evil. Higher education should be the solution to that, not part of the problem.
Colleges must instill in students not a desire to shrink from disagreement, but an affirmative sense of duty to seek out and engage smart people with whom we disagree. We hope higher education will rise to that challenge.