A Call to Action: Protecting Freedom of Speech on College Campuses

A Call to Action: Protecting Freedom of Speech on College Campuses

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By Benjamin Gee '18 During a time when Freedom of Speech is nationally under attack, it is important for W&L to join other Universities in rededicating itself to this fundamental right

In 2015, the United States became embroiled in intense debate over a series of conflicts on college campuses where student activism took a decidedly totalitarian turn.  These movements have professed noble aims, but their actions and solutions frequently conflict with our nation’s fundamental values of free speech and expression.  

Last year we witnessed Yale students seek the censure and termination of a faculty member, Dr. Erika Christakis, for the mere suggestion that students protesting the perceived offensiveness of Halloween costumes worn by other students may take political correctness too far. Students then attacked her husband, and fellow Yale employee, for defending her right to express an opinion about the opinion of the protesters. Dr. Christakis has since stepped down, hounded from her position by angry students determined to persecute her for expressing herself in a manner they deemed offensive.

Yale officials quickly acceded to the student pressure with promises and apologies – the “Master” of its Pierson College even requested his title to be withdrawn, as the word “master” to him cruelly reminds his students of slavery and patriarchy. Yale’s capitulation is especially troubling in light of its historically steadfast devotion to freedom of speech, beginning with the 1974 Woodward report that declared freedom of speech one of the college’s most cherished values.

Yale was not the only location of freedom of speech infringement in the past year. Unfortunately, it was just one example in a long and dispiriting line of colleges willing to abridge free speech for reasons of political expediency. After 2015, no longer do Administrations and faculty remain the only threats. Recently, a surge of student action has challenged free speech on college campuses in a variety of unsettling ways. At UC Berkeley, an article in the school newspaper condemned a Professor for answering a student’s question about transgender inclusion within Karl Marx’s division of labor theory (yes, this was an actual question) by simply stating, “there will always be exceptions.” As a factual and honest answer to a completely non-contextual historical question, the Professor’s answer makes perfect sense. However, the article’s budding censors felt that the Professor committed a microaggression by referring to transgender people as “exceptions,” and therefore felt sufficiently triggered to exit lectures in righteous indignation. Instead of going to class, evidently, these students spent their time writing up demands for this Professor’s mandatory “reform,” along with the entire humanities department at UC Berkeley.

When Marx formulated his economic theories in the 1840s, conceptual “transgender” identity did not yet exist in Western society. Psychiatrist John F. Oliven first used the term in 1965, and not until ten years earlier in 1952 did the first publically known medical transgender process occur. No scientific capability existed in the 1840s to conduct transgender medical processes, and nor did society at large possess even a rudimentary awareness of transgender issues. The student’s question inserts modern-day transgender politics into Marx’s prior economic model, unnecessarily complicating and faulting a thinker and his time period for being unaware of this contemporary progressive cause de celebre. To these students, the Professor did not immediately cooperate with this irrespective-of-fact agenda, so they retaliated by attempting to restrict that Professor’s speech.

At Wesleyan University, the student government suppressed ill-favored speech with totalitarian overtones when in October, it passed a resolution to withhold funding from a conservative publication (The Argus) after it featured an article criticizing the methods of the Black Lives Matter movement. The resolution proposed to cut the Argus’ funding by 57 percent, $30,000 to $13,000 – a sudden and crippling reduction to the nation’s second oldest bi-weekly collegiate magazine. The resolution passed unanimously, 27 votes to zero. At Wesleyan, the tools of student government became instruments of oppression, enforcing a rigid adherence to progressive doctrine at a steep cost to freedom of speech.

Joining Wesleyan’s student government in legislative censorship was the University of California at Irvine, where a committee passed a resolution prohibiting the display of flags on campus. According to the resolution, flags serve as weapons of nationalism that perpetuate dangerous cultural narratives, disrupt “safe spaces,” and create “paradigms of conformity.” Without a trace of irony, the resolution produces the very structures of conformity it professes to detest – because as long as the conformity suits a progressive political end, it justifies the means.

Rounding out just a few of these appalling incidences of student-directed free speech infringement stands the University of Missouri (Mizzou), lately the site of large demonstrations to protest a perceived lack of inclusiveness in the campus community. At public rallies designed to provide “safe spaces” for students, journalists were systematically obstructed and in some cases forcibly removed from demonstration spaces. In one notorious example, a student journalist was physically removed from a rally by “muscle” called for by a disgraceful Mass Media Professor. A viral video of the event displays this Professor, whose profession relies entirely on the efficacy and sacredness of the First Amendment, indignantly suppress the offending student from exercising his right to express himself as a member of the media. This Professor and her “muscle men” exemplify the expanding hypocrisy that unfortunately characterizes many recent anti-free speech movements at our colleges and universities, attacking the very rights that enable them to voice their calls for change.

In late 2015, Washington and Lee University witnessed a student-led demonstration expressing solidarity with the Mizzou protesters, requesting a broader understanding of the W&L community’s interactions with race. The rally was conducted with open inclusiveness, featuring students who stepped forward to share their race-oriented experiences at W&L with others. It should be noted that this rally was markedly different from those at other colleges, where freedom of expression took a forceful backseat to carefully constructed “safe spaces.” Everyone was invited, and the goal of the organizers was to maximize the amount of people present, rather than restrict those they disagreed with. Although this rally did not contend with freedom of speech at W&L, the school still must face challenges to freedom of speech from its administrative policies and the student government.

Washington and Lee University currently has several rules in place that risk abridgements of students’ freedom of speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a prominent organization dedicated to protecting constitutional liberties, labels Washington and Lee with a “yellow” rating on its three-tiered scale of green to red. The yellow rating owes itself to three regulations that potentially interfere with free speech. The first, a statement on student behavior in the Student Handbook, asks that “instances of uncivil behavior involving students” be reported to the Associate Dean of Student Conduct – although “uncivil” can be easily interpreted as speech that violates the Handbook’s dictum for “mutual respect.” Next, a Student Judicial Council statement recommends students to issue complaints against fellow students for “conduct unbecoming a Washington and Lee student,” another broad phrase that could easily imperil speech. Finally, the school’s policy on Bias and Hate Speech declares that “bias incidents,” or actions reasonably concluded to intimidate or demean others, must incur a swift and forceful response from the University in order to preserve “the climate of civility and respect necessary to achieve and maintain a diverse and inclusive community.” Without a more direct affirmation of free speech principles, these policies pose a danger to freedom of expression at W&L, as their ambiguous definitions of terms like civility and bias could be used to persecute student speech.

Amid all the grave threats and challenges facing freedom of speech on college campuses today, certain Universities have stepped forward to bravely defend the right to free speech in both word and deed. Their efforts center upon mutual adoption of the University of Chicago’s renowned declaration of support for free speech. The statement reads, “In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for W&L as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the the participation of the University community members in such debate and deliberation is an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.” So far Princeton, Purdue, Johns Hopkins, and several more schools have incorporated this admirable declaration into their own University policy.

This group of well-regarded, highly selective Universities has distinguished itself from the national collegiate malaise of debilitating, censorious speech codes and spineless capitulations, by taking a stand in support of free speech. The Spectator believes that Washington and Lee University can and should adopt the University of Chicago’s free-speech declaration. In agreeing to the declaration, W&L will reaffirm its commitment to a central component of the liberal arts education – the ability for ideas and thoughts to interact with one another unimpeded, ensuring free and open dialogue necessary for the development of intellectual maturity.

Washington and Lee’s motto, non incautus futuri (not unmindful of the future), pays homage to Horace’s Satires and the family crest of former President Robert E. Lee. Combined with its mission statement, which pledges “Graduates will be prepared for lifelong learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society,” W&L indisputably weighs its students’ readiness for the future among its most vital institutional goals.

Being mindful of the future requires looking back into the past, into our history, for sources of inspiration and caution. The story of free expression has much to tell us, and should serve as a bold call to action whenever it is questioned. Today, free speech may appear to some people as inconsistent with “civilized” society. However, they would fail to recognize that prior to the First Amendment’s birth in 1788, no “civilized” society had ever before declared its support for freedom of expression in all its forms, for all individuals. Restricting speech, on the other hand, has been the tyrant’s dearest friend; the book-burners, speech code writers, dissent-crushers, media-controlling monarchs and tyrannical despots of history have shown us that free speech is the greatest foe to those who wish absolute control over other human beings.

Free speech is not a relic of an outdated age, and it never will be. It is a hallmark of civilized society, protecting the most contemptible along with the most respected because every person, no matter how enlightened or “correct” they are, deserve a chance to speak. If we lose reverence for this right, or allow it to be sublimated beneath antagonistic “values” like political correctness, we compromise the very essence of our future’s promise. What good is it for W&L graduates to think “freely, critically, and humanely,” quoting our mission statement, in a world that restricts graduates’ capacity to do so? Is it not “unmindful of the future” for W&L to allow other Universities to trample free speech, without taking a stand for this vital component of our society’s past, present, and future? These are questions the Washington and Lee community must ask, and the answer will help shape the future that awaits us. The Spectator urges W&L to join the brave schools in favor of free speech by adopting the University of Chicago’s declaration. Such an action would be fitting for Washington and Lee, a school that justly takes pride in creating a future of promise for its students. It is left to us to create that future; let us choose wisely, not by giving in to old and tired totalitarian ideas, but embracing the wisdom of the still-revolutionary freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of suppression. It is on foundational principles such as this that a better future is made.

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