A Culture of Free Speech Protects Everyone

The journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones appears to be a victim of viewpoint discrimination. Academic freedom needs a vigorous defense—and not just at UNC.

An illustration of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
The Atlantic / Alamy

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs, and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Last week, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, was named the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Faculty at its Hussman School of Journalism and Media recommended her for tenure too. But the university’s board of trustees didn’t approve the faculty recommendation. Instead, UNC appointed her to a five-year contract with the option of a tenure review.

That appointment may still strike many Americans as a great gig, even without the dream of lifetime job security. But many in academia and journalism see it as a politicized assault on academic autonomy and the First Amendment. Two years ago, Hannah-Jones’s project sought to reframe American history around the year when captured Africans were first brought to Virginia as slaves. “The 1619 Project ignited a continuing debate about the legacy of slavery, but has faced criticism from some historians over certain claims, and from conservatives who have labeled it ‘propaganda,’” The New York Times reported in its coverage of the UNC decision. “The Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature appoints the university system’s Board of Governors, which has significant control over the university’s board of trustees.”

If antipathy toward the perspective of the 1619 Project motivated the denial of tenure—and I fear that it did—that would be a clear example of a government body unconstitutionally punishing someone for her views. The Supreme Court declared in 1995, “When the government targets not subject matter but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant. Viewpoint discrimination is thus an egregious form of content discrimination. The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.” The 1619 Project’s thesis should be roundly debated in universities, not kept from their students.

Plenty of circumstantial evidence suggests that Hannah-Jones is a victim of impermissible viewpoint discrimination. An unnamed trustee at the university told NC Policy Watch that “the political environment made granting Hannah-Jones tenure difficult, if not impossible.” Critics of her hiring in North Carolina explicitly argued that “her 1619 Project’s tenets, of which a major part is the Critical Race Theory, will be driven into our state’s school curriculum where our children will be taught her beliefs every day,” and GOP political appointees in the state have shown little commitment to academic freedom.

All parties at UNC should be transparent about their actions. A denial of immediate tenure would not impermissibly discriminate on the basis of viewpoint if it were grounded, for example, in a new policy of subjecting all faculty hires to a trial period before granting tenure. The university might legitimately balk if faculty members urged that a candidate be granted tenure based on political rather than scholarly considerations, or if higher-ups had genuine misgivings about the rigor of a prospective hire’s work. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that “the journalism school’s dean, Susan King, said she was told that the UNC-CH Board of Trustees was hesitant to give tenure to someone outside of academia.” But prior Knight chairs had been given tenure based on professional experience rather than academic credentials. If the board of trustees acted because of some constitutionally permissible concern, they should show the proof now. Extended silence can reasonably be taken as an indication of suspect actions.

The committee that recommended tenure should also be transparent about its own process—including whether it considered the strongest criticism of Hannah-Jones’s work in reaching its conclusion.

This matter has proved divisive in part because some observers believe that Hannah-Jones’s appointment was motivated by viewpoint discrimination in favor of the 1619 Project, notwithstanding questions about its journalistic quality. To its defenders, it is a masterwork that now carries the imprimatur of the Pulitzer Prize; indeed, Hannah-Jones’s work has been validated by all of the most prestigious honors available to journalists, including a MacArthur genius fellowship. But to an ideologically diverse group of critics, the 1619 Project was marred by multiple factual errors, damning revelations from a fact-checker, and obfuscatory stealth edits that many friendly to its thesis overlooked or waved away by focusing exclusively on the dumbest criticism of the project (most prominently, demagogic attacks by then-President Donald Trump).

A Twitter exchange between the journalists I. J. Bailey and Wesley Yang shows how this divide is playing out:

I. J. Bailey: Funny how many excuses cancel culture warriors conjure up when they agree with the cancellation because they don’t like the person being cancelled.

Wesley Yang: But of course there is no cancellation. She’s still being hired, just not instantly being given tenure.

Bailey: So you, too, are ok with conservative groups pressuring an academic department to disinvite a highly qualified person because conservatives don’t like the person? The department found a way to try and salvage this appointment anyway. But they were forced to by conservatives.

Yang: The critique of NHJ that is relevant to me is not “she slandered the US,” but “a historian they consulted to fact check the project told them a key assertion in her lead essay was wrong and they ignored her and published anyway…” So to what degree the merely political rather than the ethical and methodological aspect of this fact entered into that choice determines whether the withholding of tenure is legitimate or not.

Bailey: She went through the tenure process, got glowing reviews from the people who’ve always made this decision. By your logic, conservatives in this state who’ve been attacking a lot of us saying things about race they don’t like is ok because of a clarification in a massive project?

Yang: The “clarification” of course only happened after [the historian Leslie M.] Harris went publicly [to] Politico to report on how her guidance was ignored. There’s a troubling indifference to typical standards of fact checking that you are yourself partaking in by handwaving this away.

Perhaps not since Dan Rather have Americans been so polarized by a particular journalist’s work. I occupy neither pole. If I were enrolled at UNC, I would eagerly take a class with Hannah-Jones. I’d expect to learn from her as an essayist. I would also press her over glaring contradictions in the way she has characterized the 1619 Project before different audiences—a subject that she and I have tangled about online. The essay of mine that prompted our exchange praised parts of the 1619 Project, including her introductory essay, and criticized others. (Our Twitter exchange concluded with her blocking me on the platform.)

Of course, the dispute at UNC transcends the question of whether Hannah-Jones deserves tenure. The controversy is ultimately inseparable from bigger ideological divides about higher education in the U.S.—especially in state institutions that must answer to legislators and the public, but that faculty and administrators want to run as they see fit.

Lindsay Ellis, a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes the controversy as the natural end point of ever more politicized college governance at public universities. On Twitter this week, she argued that three important changes occurred since 2010: Support for higher education among Republicans tanked, GOP lawmakers started legislating against instruction on critical race theory, and state legislatures became more likely to be controlled by one party. “If there’s one-party rule, that means there is no bipartisan check for a board member to assume their seat,” Ellis explained. “So what? College leaders know board members are picked by a dominant political party. And they’re finding that boards will meddle in campus-level decisions.”

This account is correct, and meddling by GOP legislators ought to concern everyone who cares about the First Amendment and academic freedom. But Republican support for university autonomy has waned for a reason: As many on the right see it, an absence of political pressure won’t result in campuses free of viewpoint discrimination, but campuses on which heavy-handed administrators and overwhelmingly Democratic faculty members chill dissent from prevailing orthodoxy.

Evidence backs up such concerns. A 2019 survey of UNC Chapel Hill undergraduates found that, in classes where politics comes up, the overwhelming majority of self-identified liberal and conservative students said that instructors encouraged participation from both sides, but also that disparaging comments about conservatives were common on campus. Almost 68 percent of conservatives reported censoring themselves in the classroom, along with roughly 49 percent of moderates and 24 percent of liberals, in part because of a significant faction at the school—larger on the left than the right—that favored suppressing speech.

Last year, Mike Adams, a conservative Christian professor at UNC Wilmington, was driven into early retirement over offensive tweets. Years earlier, that system had violated his constitutional rights when it denied him a promotion to full professor, a decision that courts overturned on First Amendment grounds.

Although many Republican politicians and some right-leaning intellectuals who condemn cancel culture are being hypocritical in failing to come to Hannah-Jones’s defense, many of her defenders have never spoken up on behalf of Adams or viewpoint discrimination against nonprogressives.

In the academy as a whole, the academic Eric Kaufmann has found that “75 percent of conservative academics in the social sciences and humanities in the U.S. and Britain say their departments are a hostile environment for their beliefs. In the U.S., fully seven in 10 conservative academics in the social sciences or humanities say they self-censor. Over 90 percent of Trump-supporting academics wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing their views with a colleague, and 85 percent of their Democratic colleagues agree that Trump supporters should stay silent.”

In an August 2020 survey, Kaufmann found that four in 10 academics in the U.S. would refuse to hire a known Trump supporter. And various public-university systems, including the University of North Carolina, are requiring formal diversity statements during hiring or tenure review, with scarcely a principled concern from progressives. Although ostensibly neutral, these statements institutionalize viewpoint discrimination in practice. Applicants who tout their commitment to color blindness and individualism as lodestars would likely be penalized for holding a viewpoint that the academic left sees as racist.

Some on the right have always been antagonistic toward independent universities that guarantee academic freedom to scholars and protect free speech and encourage viewpoint diversity among students. But as universities waver in upholding liberal values or embrace illiberal successors to them, they are finding fewer defenders when progressives’ right to free expression comes under threat.

By taking principled, consistent stands for academic freedom and free speech, people on the left and the right can protect everyone. In 2006, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education produced a scathing report about unconstitutional policies in place in the UNC system. In subsequent years, most UNC campuses changed their policies and came to earn FIRE’s “green light” rating on free-speech policies. Those improvements are due in part to legislative intervention, namely a 2017 bill that strengthened free-speech protections in that state-university system, underscoring the complicated relationship between public universities and the lawmakers to whom they are accountable. But the Hannah-Jones case suggests that written policies achieve only so much without a larger culture that defends free speech for all.

Insofar as public universities continue to engage in viewpoint discrimination against people of any ideology, impose speech codes, or insist on fealty to contested progressive understandings of diversity, equity, and inclusion, lawmakers should intervene to uphold liberal values.

But the Hannah-Jones case appears to cut in the opposite direction, with politicians exerting influence that chills rather than protects the free exchange of ideas. If the evidence shows—as I and many others suspect it will—that she was denied tenure because of viewpoint discrimination, the decision should be reversed.