At Amherst, student activists operating under the name Amherst Uprising demanded “a zero-tolerance policy for racial insensitivity.” And they specifically sought to punish dissenting students who made their own protest signs with the messages, “All Lives Matter” and “Free Speech Is the Real Victim of the Missouri Protests.”
At several colleges, activists want faculty members to be punished for all microaggressions.
A black student at Occidental told The Los Angeles Times that he has been shunned and harassed for opposing efforts of other student activists to oust the college president.
At Duke, activists want faculty to lose the possibility of tenure for words that they utter “if the discriminatory attitudes behind the speech could potentially harm the academic achievements of students of color.”
At Yale, student activists spat on attendees of an event with which they disagreed. Others called for a professor and his wife, herself a Yale lecturer, to be removed from their positions in residential life for failing to apologize for an email about Halloween costumes.
To his credit, my conversation partner, Jelani Cobb, is concerned about students and their grievances. He has also written, “That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus—important but largely separate subjects—is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point.” He characterized this response as “outraged First Amendment fundamentalism.” I respectfully but vehemently disagree.
First, it’s perfectly possible to debate free speech on campus and efforts to make campuses more inclusive. The media is full of both debates. Neither has been subsumed by the other.
Second, how can one fully understand student activists without attentively listening and then engaging in conversation and, where there is disagreement or lack of clarity, debate? Without a culture of free speech there cannot be constructive dialogue.
Third, the free-speech objections raised today are not fundamentalist in the least: The vast majority of examples at public universities fall easily within long-settled First amendment precedents––these are not edge cases––and at private colleges, one needn’t be a free-speech zealot to object to activists spitting on people or telling a man he’s disgusting and should resign because of an earnest email his wife wrote!
Finally, civil libertarians don’t get to choose when to defend civil rights. I’d love to defend due process with choir boys and Girl Scouts as my examples. Instead, I objected to Anwar al-Awlaki being killed, because his killing posed a threat to due process.
I’m tremendously sympathetic to college students who don’t feel welcome on their own campuses. Smart, idealistic, likable 18-year-olds are not the antagonists I’d pick in a free-speech fight if I were choosing. But I’m not. They are. Administrators and students chose to target speech; at UCLA they chose a course that would set precedents weakening the First Amendment for people far beyond themselves; at Yale, Dean Jonathan Holloway said in an interview with Professor Cobb that video of students yelling at a professor gave outsiders the false impression that the conflict there was about free speech. But Yale protestors chose to call in their official, written demands for the resignation of a faculty-in-residence at an undergraduate colleges for refusing to apologize for his wife’s email. So yes, the conflict at Yale is partly focused on trying to punish speech, due to the choices of students.
These wrongheaded choices are distracting them from other, more worthy demands, and weakening their cause, because a lot of small-l liberals understand that for colleges to thrive, speech cannot be chilled. There needs to be a process of unending discussion and debate, where wrongheaded ideas are changed by persuasion, not punished by babysitter administrators. And contrary to what some students say, this is not a subject that divides white people from “people of color.”