The Deprivation of Debate
Recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale, and Wesleyan have set off a new wave of angry op-eds concerning free speech on college campuses. Reactions have ranged from the reliably condescending Fox News clan’s disgust toward any campus protest to the steadfast defense of all protest tactics among progressive students. Free speech debates are often complex and intertwined with hot button topics, including campus diversity, trigger warnings, safe spaces, student journalism, and the right to dissent. Even if all sides cannot agree on solutions to the problem of free speech on college campuses, we need to acknowledge that the problem exists – and we must be able to talk about it.
In September, a Wesleyan student and Iraq War veteran named Bryan Stascavage wrote an op-ed in the The Wesleyan Argus criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. While he granted that the movement has had positive effects as well as negative ones, he concluded that anti-police rhetoric has harmed the movement as a whole. Although I wholeheartedly disagree with Stascavage’s argument, the blowback to his expression of an opinion has been alarming. A few hundred students have signed a petition to defund the campus newspaper’s budget, and the student government has voted unanimously to consider these changes. The petition also aims to dispose of all the remaining copies of the paper, and to withhold future funds for the oldest twice-weekly college publication in the country until certain demands are met.
Last month, a group of Yale University administrators sent an email urging students to be culturally sensitive when choosing Halloween costumes. Two professors wrote a response arguing that Yale students might be better off solving the problem of cultural insensitivity through open dialogue. In other words, if you see someone with a costume that offends you, explain to them why it is problematic; a top-down approach from the Yale faculty will do no good. Within days, student uproar ensued, with many calling for the authors of the response email to resign. One viral video showed a student hysterically screaming and swearing at one of the professors at issue, going as far as to question how the professor can sleep at night given what he has done. Similarly, students at Claremont McKenna College recently called for the resignation of their junior class president after she was seen in a photo with students who were wearing sombreros for Halloween. The class president herself was dressed up as Justin Bieber. If this is what now constitutes a campus crime, a lot of us have some Facebook photo untagging to do.
Nothing exemplifies the free speech problem on college campuses more than the new trend of uninviting lecturers. Last year, Brandeis University revoked an honorary degree and speaking opportunity from outspoken women’s rights proponent Ayaan Hirsi Ali after student groups raised concerns about Ali’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Somali-born author endured genital mutilation by religious fanatics as a child and was later forced to flee to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. However, Ali’s criticism of her former religion was apparently too harsh for Brandeis students to permit on campus. While some readers sympathize with Ali’s heartbreaking story, many still deny her the chance to tell it.
The issue of who should be allowed to speak on campuses is not unique to the US. Last month, a conservative British writer was uninvited from his alma mater after the student body worried his planned debate with a fellow journalist would compromise the “safety” of the students. The subject of the debate: feminism and its relation to free speech. I cannot say what worries me more: the students’ stifling of open dialogue, or their inability to detect the irony of the situation.
It should be noted that in many of these “uninviting” instances, student attendance at the lectures in question is completely optional. A multitude of approaches can be taken with regard to an offensive speaker: holding a simultaneous event, boycotting the lecture, attending the event to ask the speaker a provocative question, or challenging the speaker’s arguments in an op-ed or blog post. Uninviting the speaker should not be the go-to choice, but that is exactly what it has become.
Many articles criticizing the crackdown on campus speech fail to address a number of concerns. First off, the term “free speech problem” typically refers to “free speech” in a general sense – the value of engaging in a dialogue with opposing voices. I am not suggesting that the Yale costume controversy violates the First Amendment, especially given the private nature of our institutions. The problem with free speech on campuses is not necessarily a legal problem, but an intellectual and educational one. Secondly, I wish to separate the issue of free speech from the “trigger warning” and “safe space” debates. Of course, these issues are often related. However, creating a designated safe space at a college when a problematic speaker is lecturing differs starkly from preventing the speaker from lecturing in the first place. Grouping all these issues together causes all sides to yell past each other.
The most recent example of speech suppression took place at the University of Missouri, where massive student protests illuminated inexcusable racial tensions and a depressing lack of administrative action. A video of one of the large demonstrations shows student photographer Tim Tai being surrounded by protesters, who are demanding that he leave the campus green without taking pictures. Some of the protesters exclaim that it is their First Amendment right to protest (and therefore to control the entire public space), with Tai responding that their right to protest is his right to document. The protesters, joined by at least two professors, became increasingly aggressive, eventually forming a tight pack and collectively pushing him away. The student filming the interaction, Mark Schierbecker, manages to escape the pack to continue filming on the green. At the end of the video, a furious professor named Melissa Click calls for “some muscle” to physically remove the student from his own campus green. After watching this scene unfold, it is hard to characterize the incident as anything short of bullying.
It is difficult to criticize these instances of campus censorship when demagogues like Donald Trump and Ben Carson cry “political correctness run amok” every time people condemn their absurd rants. Additionally, while some might say my argument is dramatic, the stakes could not be higher. As American undergraduates, what do we think college should really be about? Are we providing a comfortable, intellectually stimulating environment for open discussion? Are we taking the time to listen to opposing ideas and controversial speakers while sufficiently defending our own beliefs?
I wish to echo the words of New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, who in his discussion of campus censorship explains that some conflicts are not between right-and-wrong, but rather between right-and-right. In many of the aforementioned instances, students have righteously been protesting injustice. In many of these instances, students have been stifling open dialogue and threatening the intellectually stimulating foundation of the college experience.
Every controversy and threat to open dialogue comes with its own complexities. To sufficiently discuss each would warrant the writing of a much longer article. But in a way, that is my point – this subject requires an in-depth debate, and right now we are having trouble getting out of the starting gate.