A Threat to Free Speech at Wesleyan

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Christopher Ingraham / Washington Post

A reader flags this report from Christopher Ingraham, “apropos of your recent discussion on campus PC.” Here’s Ingraham on the latest flashpoint:

Students and staff members at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University are boycotting the school’s 147-year-old student newspaper and threatening to remove copies of the paper from campus after the paper published a student op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The op-ed, which appeared in the Wesleyan Argus last week, argued that the Black Lives Matter movement bears some responsibility for recent police killings and unrest in response to police shootings of unarmed black men. After some students objected to the op-ed, the paper published a front-page apology in the following issue, affirming its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, criticizing the op-ed’s “inaccurate statistics,” encouraging minority students to contribute to the paper, and resolving to publish “an issue of The Argus written entirely by students of color” in the near future.

But for the paper’s detractors, this wasn’t enough.

Members of the Student Assembly are now considering whether to act on a petition, currently signed by 170 students and staff members, calling for a boycott of the paper for failing to “be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body” and neglecting to “provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.” The petitioners call for the paper to be stripped of its student group funding, and say they will remove copies of the paper from campus until certain demands are met …

On that note, Ingraham created the above chart on college newspaper theft—read his full explanation here. One of the boycotters’ demands: “mandatory once-a-semester ‘social justice/diversity’ training for all staff members.” Our reader sounds off:

First, I think that it’s important to note that Ingraham’s coverage slightly yet significantly mischaracterizes the complaint made in the petition (covered by the Wesleyan paper here) by citing student complaints that the paper “failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body.” In the petition itself, the students complained that the paper has "historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body" (emphasis added). When I first read Ingraham’s WaPo article, it appeared that the students were responding to the paper’s inclusion of a viewpoint with which they disagreed with complaints about the paper’s failure to be inclusive. Instead, the students were referencing (what they perceived to be) a persistent pattern of exclusion of minority viewpoints, specifically the paper’s failure “to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.”

However, I still think this incident fits within the trend discussed previously in Notes. It appears that this unpopular view is being shut down rather than engaged. One student wrote that he was upset by the fact that

the Argus chose to give this man somewhere to share his disrespectful opinion and to then have the Argus and its staff members defend the publication, hiding behind the argument of ‘well it’s not my opinion but he’s allowed to have it’ is frankly a great disappointment. The Argus’ publication of this opinion is a silent agreement with its content, and a silent agreement to the all too prevalent belief that black [and] brown people do not deserve a voice, and that we are not worthy of respect.

If a paper is necessarily providing its full endorsement to everything it publishes (as this student is implying), there will be no room for dissent from minority voices (in this case, a minority opinion rather than an ethnic minority). This leads to the appearance of unity of opinion without actual agreement or discussion; it hides the problem rather than addressing it.

I think the petitioner’s goal of getting more diversity in the views represented in the paper is admirable, but the path to that goal is not through shutting down the voices of those with whom you disagree.

In agreement is Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth, who wrote a post called “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech.” Money quote:

Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

Roland Dodds shakes his head over the controversy: “We are always implored to create said dialogue on issues of race, sex, and culture but we are kept in predictable spheres that actually limit honest expression.” One person who doesn’t seem to fit a predictable sphere is the conservative Wesleyan student who wrote the infamous op-ed, Bryan Stascavage. As Robby Soave points out:

Stascavage goes on to explain that he’s frustrated with extremists in his own party who refuse to accept gay marriage, something he supports.

There’s plenty to criticize in the op-ed, but it’s hardly “openly racist.” If agreeing with BLM about certain policy concerns but lamenting specific tactics is ipso facto racist, then there is simply no acceptably sensitive way to scrutinize BLM.

Do you vehemently disagree and support the actions of the boycotters? Email hello@theatlantic.com and we’ll post your views. Update: Conor tackles the controversy.