This article is first in a series on “the year that was” in higher education.
This last school year has been more than a little distressing for those who care about free speech and academic freedom on our nation’s college and university campuses. And it’s not because of any change in the legal understanding of free speech—speech codes still fail miserably in court. Instead, this year’s censors and would-be censors have turned to some time-tested and some novel approaches to chill speech and dissent and seal off the collegiate echo chamber. Let’s take a look at a few of the more notable trends.
The nation took notice of censorship on campus this spring when a number of prominent figures were “disinvited” or withdrew from speaking at graduation ceremonies following student protests about their selection. In April, Brandeis University officially reversed its decision to award an honorary degree to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali when students complained about her criticism of Islam. Shortly afterward, student protests prompted former Secretary of State Rice to withdraw from speaking at the Rutgers University commencement and International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde to decline her invitation to deliver a graduation address at Smith College. Interest in the issue was so high that FIRE released its first-ever report on the disinvitation movement.
Disinvitations don’t just happen at commencement time, either. One of the most notable occurred at Brown University in October, when New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly attempted to speak about his city’s policing methods. He managed to deliver approximately 60 seconds of his speech before student protesters, who objected to the methods he was discussing, made it impossible for him to continue. They began chanting so loudly that Kelly could not be heard. After 27 minutes of continuous chanting, Kelly left without giving his address. This form of disinvitation is known as the “heckler’s veto,” and students have used it to silence a variety of speech, including the artistic expression of their peers. Indeed, it may be the success of the shouting-down of Kelly that inspired the vigorous commencement-time disinvitations this year.
This academic year has also seen the birth of a new form of campus censorship. Several colleges have urged professors to issue “trigger warnings” before discussing material that might upset sensitive students—or to even remove such content from their classes altogether. When challenged, supporters of trigger warnings have argued that they are necessary to avoid triggering episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of crime like rape. This is despite the fact that triggers can consist of nearly anything—sounds, sights, smells, etc.—and do not necessarily bear an obvious relationship to the trauma.
Oberlin led the charge in February 2014, when it posted on its website—and quickly removed due to faculty criticism—a “resource” for faculty to deal with “triggering” material. Its attempt quickly exposed the actual political reasons behind the movement for trigger warnings. While the stated goal of Oberlin’s resource was to create a welcoming environment for “survivors of sexualized violence,” Oberlin stretched that objective to cover a shocking amount of information. Stating that “sexual misconduct is inextricably tied to issues of privilege and oppression,” the policy advised professors to “[e]ducate [themselves] about racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression” and their potential to cause emotional distress among students.
Similar policies are being adopted or considered at a number of colleges, prompting professors from seven different campuses to pen an Inside Higher Ed article discussing the dangers of such requirements. In it, they explain how unrealistic it is to expect professors to anticipate and handle trauma evoked by course materials and declare that “this movement is already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching and pedagogy.” Their concerns are well-founded; in recent years, many instructors have been harshly disciplined for using relatively innocuous content in their classrooms. Instituting trigger warning policies will only exacerbate this type of censorship.
The Dangers of Discussing Sex
To the outside observer, there appears to be no shortage of talk about sex on college campuses. Unfortunately, though, while you may be free to talk about sexual issues in the approved ways, stepping outside the often unknown and irrational parameters of discussion set by the powers that be can present real problems.
For instance, in December at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Patti Adler’s long-running “Deviance in U.S. Society” class was canceled for the following semester by skittish administrators who claimed that a lecture on prostitution that involved voluntary student participation could be seen as “harassing.” Her offense? According to the Boulder Daily Camera, “During a Nov. 5 lecture on prostitution, some of Adler’s teaching assistants dressed as various types of prostitutes and other characters to portray their lifestyles for the class,” an activity that had by all accounts been going on for years without problems. After FIRE and others protested, the university relented. Yet Adler was able to read the handwriting on the wall: she canceled the skit for this spring semester anyway.
And it’s not just talk about sex itself—talk about sexual issues has been a big issue at Stanford this spring, with the student government refusing to allocate $600 of requested student funding to the Stanford Anscombe Society for a conference on traditional values and marriage. Despite the fact that the student government constitution contains a provision mirroring the exact wording of the First Amendment, the Stanford student government decided that viewpoint discrimination in terms of funding requests was just fine. It also professed that there was “simply not enough money” to fulfill every request. Perhaps they simply overlooked their own “buffer fund” of excess student fees paid over the years. After all, it only contains $539,827.58.
Growing Anger about Cultural Appropriation
Complaints about “cultural appropriation” aren’t new on campus, but such accusations are becoming more common—and more strained—as the years pass. During the 2013-2014 school year, a number of ethnicity-based student organizations expressed outrage when images and ideas associated with their cultures were used by students of other backgrounds.
At Dartmouth, the Alpha Phi sorority and Phi Delta Alpha fraternity decided to cancel their annual “Phiesta”–a combination of the words “Phi” and “fiesta”–when students complained that the name was culturally insensitive.
The Residence Hall Association at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota chose to nix its plans to bring a live camel to campus for a Wednesday event called “Hump Day,” which the organizers described as “‘a petting zoo type of atmosphere’ in which students could hang out and take photos with a live camel.” Dozens of students organized a Facebook protest of the event, claiming that the camel’s presence on campus would, among other things, be “racially insensitive to Middle Eastern cultures.” Apparently, just the geographic proximity of an animal’s habitat to a given ethnic group is now a reason to complain.
Hampshire College in western Massachusetts made the even worse decision to cancel a campus performance by Shokazoba, an Afrobeat band, because its members are mostly not black. Students complained that the band, which features an African-American lead singer, was appropriating black culture by playing Afrobeat music. It’s difficult to think of a more depressing commentary on the narrowing of the cultural horizons of today’s students than the fact that some campuses have come to the point at which the performance of music is to be limited by the color of one’s skin.
Speech Codes: They Keep Inventing Them, FIRE Keeps Defeating Them
The incidence of laughably unconstitutional speech codes on campus has decreased since FIRE began tracking them seven years ago. In 2007, 75% of schools had such restrictions on speech that, off campus, is obviously protected by the Constitution. Today, it’s 59%, and it’s fallen every year. But administrators at too many schools seem unable to wise up, or at least think back to their high school civics courses. Modesto Junior College infamously told a student that he couldn’t pass out copies of the Constitution on campus on Constitution Day—an incident captured in a viral cellphone video. For its foolishness, the college ended up paying $50,000 in cash, and an untold amount more in reputational damage.
And yet Modesto wasn’t the only school to do so. The University of Hawaii at Hilo pulled a similar stunt, helpfully reminding students that “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore,” the 1960’s evidently being the only appropriate decade for walking around, talking to people, and handing out America’s founding documents.
Even state legislatures are waking up to the threat posed by such speech restrictions. Virginia passed a law this year effectively designating all outdoor areas on the state’s public college campuses as public forums. This means that the typical campus tactic of establishing so-called “free speech zones” as the only spaces on campus where students can exercise their First Amendment rights. (Modesto’s free speech zone is an embarrassing example.) In Virginia, students will now be assumed to have the right to express themselves freely, rather than it being an exception to the rule.
As FIRE marks its 15th Anniversary year, we can take some comfort in the fact that official attempts to blatantly censor speech that are initiated by college administrators are on the decrease. This is reason to celebrate. Yet they are still far too supine in the face of demands for censorship from forces both on and off campus—and these demands are only increasing. If campuses are to serve as a marketplace of ideas, simply resisting the urge to proactively censor isn’t enough. Those who run our colleges must educate themselves on the reasons for free speech and academic freedom on campus, and be prepared to explain and defend those reasons in the face of the inevitable demands for censorship that will come their way.