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Harvey Silverglate's 2016 Campus Muzzle Awards

Yale University's Harkness Tower.

Campus censorship is particularly dangerous since it risks teaching students, who represent the next generation preparing to assume power and guide our nation, that all of those nice words about liberty and freedom contained in the First Amendment are simply red-white-and-blue bunting: there for the sake of appearance but of no real consequence.

Until the past few years, most campus censorship was the product of administrative overreach. More recently, there has been an increase in examples of censorship by faculty members. But most disturbing of late has been the proliferation of instances of students seeking to censor campus speakers or other students.

What follows are only the most egregious examples of on-campus narrow-mindedness and intolerance.

In a string of events that started with an email about Halloween costumes, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, two well-respected professors at Yale University, resigned their administrative posts as faculty of Silliman College (a dormitory) amid student protests.

It all started on Oct. 27, 2015, when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) sent an email to undergraduates encouraging them to consider the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes. While Yale students generally are thoughtful and sensitive, the email read, some students forget to be so during Halloween, a time when they often make “poor decisions” about how to dress themselves. The IAC’s solution was to remind students that they should choose costumes that are respectful of cultures and nationalities.

After hearing from a number of students who were frustrated with what they interpreted as administrative micromanagement, Erika, an expert in early childhood development, responded in an October 30 email to Silliman residents. The crux of her response was this: “I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional exercise of implied control over college students.” Christakis, speaking from an academic perspective, argued that students should decide for themselves whether their (and their peers’) costumes were offensive.

Rather than reflection on her suggestion, though, Christakis got ridicule and demands for her resignation. Less than a day after Christakis sent the email, a Silliman College resident penned an open letter, which eventually garnered more than 700 signatures, accusing Christakis of “invalidating the voices of minority students.”   

Amid a racially tumultuous campus climate, student protestors at Yale latched onto the idea that Erika’s email was, in fact, racist, despite the fact that she and her husband are, ironically, champions of liberal values. Students demanded their apology and, when Nicholas refused (“I stand by free speech. I defend the right for people to speak their minds,” he told student protestors outside Silliman), the protesters demanded their resignations. Eventually, after weeks of insults and protests, Erika resigned her teaching post as a lecturer and Nicholas announced he would go on sabbatical during the spring term.

Fast forward to May 2016: A number of graduating Silliman seniors refused to accept their diplomas from Nicholas (as is customary at Yale). After this, Nicholas and Erika resigned their positions at Silliman. The yearlong “controversy” was just another nail in the coffin of free speech on America’s college campuses and no doubt serves as a warning to other professors who dare speak out against the prevailing (or at least the loudest) opinions.

Nick Allen via Wikimedia Commons

In 2015, student journalists of Brandeis University’s The Justice newspaper came under fire from students and administrators for reporting on a public sexual assault awareness event that had taken place on campus. The reporters had recorded the event and in their news report had anonymously quoted some speakers, being careful to exclude any identifying information from the quotations used. The staff of The Justice report were accused of “[making] the space less safe and ‘[taking] the speakers’ stories away from them.'”

The backlash began with harassing emails and calls for a retraction and apology, but did not stop there; the student journalists then faced threats of legal and disciplinary action for almost an entire year. In August 2015, they received notice that the case was being investigated for a potential lawsuit. The lawsuit was never brought, but the Brandeis administration attempted to discipline the students under the school’s Electronic Device and Privacy policy, which prohibits surreptitious recording as a violation of privacy. As The Justice staff, as well as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and members of the Brandeis journalism department, argued, recording a public event does not constitute a violation of privacy under Massachusetts law nor journalism ethics codes. (Disclosure: Silverglate is cofounder, and currently a member of the board of directors, of FIRE.)

The Brandeis administration ultimately dropped the charges and announced plans to review the Electronic Device and Privacy policy. Although this outcome was ultimately a victory for freedom of speech at Brandeis, these students had to spend a year of their college careers fighting back against this multi-pronged censorship campaign when they could have devoted that energy to their studies and their journalism. They should not have needed to do so.

Throughout this string of obstacles, The Justice refused to retract the original article; it can still be found on its website. We applaud the students of The Justice for holding their ground in the face of immense pressure. Hopefully, when they graduate, they will contribute this much-needed resilience to the press at large.

Elizabeth B. Thomsen via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more difficult areas of free speech law rears its head when we deal with a parochial, church-related yet self-described liberal arts college that proceeds to punish a faculty member who utters a view that arguably collides with church doctrine and teaching. It is precisely because of the quintessentially anomalous position in which such colleges find themselves that administrators of such schools have to fulfill their roles with a maximum of sensitivity to the inherent tensions.

This is why the administration of Gordon College, a self-described Christian liberal arts college located in Wenham, Massachusetts, earned its first Muzzle when it punished a faculty member, Lauren Barthold, for expressing support for federal protection for equal employment opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. As Barthold’s ACLU of Massachusetts lawyer, Joshua Solomon, pointed out, “Although Gordon describes itself as a Christian liberal arts college, Gordon’s faculty members like Lauren Barthold are not ministers, and Gordon is not a seminary or a house of worship.”

Gordon’s president, D. Michael Lindsay, signed a letter to President Obama in July 2014 arguing for a religious exemption in a forthcoming executive order prohibiting federal contractors from using sexual orientation as a criterion for hiring and firing. Lindsay’s position predictably attracted widespread criticism, including letters and petitions. One such letter was written by Barthold to a local newspaper, supplemented by quotations in news reports. This act of apparent apostasy drew not only condemnation from President Lindsay and the college’s board of trustees—which would have been fine and fully protected—but also a threat to fire Barthold.

A letter from the ACLUM lawyers apparently convinced Lindsay and company to temper their threat.  ACLUM Staff Attorney Sarah Wunsch wrote to Gordon’s administration that the situation called for protection of both Gordon’s freedom of religion and Barthold’s freedom of speech. Citing Gordon’s self-proclaimed status as a liberal arts college, albeit a sectarian one, the civil liberties lawyer pointed out that the college hires a variety of Christians with different doctrinal views, along with some non-Christians, on its faculty. In this context, wrote Wunsch, “The college does not have a right to punish a philosophy professor who criticized a policy of discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation or gendered identity.”

In the end, Barthold kept her job, but was disciplined by being denied the right to seek a promotion, a right which otherwise would have been timely in her career trajectory. She also was removed from her position as director of the school’s gender studies minor. Hence the litigation, and hence the Muzzle Award.

Smartalic34 via Wikimedia Commons

This year has been noteworthy for instances in which students—not just administrators—are a primary threat to free speech on their own campuses. Alongside the national debate about police violence against blacks, vigorous debates on college campuses have centered on issues of racial injustice at universities. At the heart of this debate at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, was the university’s student-run newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus.

After the Argus published an opinion piece, “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think," on Sept. 14, 2015, that was critical of some of the tactics of BLM, a group of students who disagreed with the piece organized a petition to boycott the 147-year-old paper and call for its defunding until a list of demands was met. Rather than, for example, writing their own op-ed outlining their criticisms of the op-ed they disagreed with, these students attempted to shut down the paper. The petition, which garnered 167 signatures from students, faculty, and staff, including the president of the student government and three members of the student senate, was considered at a special forum of the Wesleyan Student Assembly on September 20.

Rebecca Brill, co-editor-in-chief of the paper, was willing to work with the student assembly and the petitioners to achieve some of the perfectly understandable and unexceptionable goals set out in the list of demands, which, among other things, included bringing more diverse voices to the paper. But, Brill said, “[I]t seems counterintuitive to censor the voice of a student expressing their views, offensive as they may be to some.”

Strangely enough, it was the administration that most vigorously defended the paper’s right to publish opinions that some might find offensive. In a blog post titled “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech,” Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth, Provost Joyce Jacobsen, and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias, defended a principle that seems to be long-lost on some sectors of this generation of college activists: That suppression is no answer to objectionable opinions.

On October 20, the WSA voted unanimously to cut the Argus’ funding in half, effective fall 2016, and use the money to fund work-study positions at four Wesleyan publications, including the Argus. Brill responded, hitting the nail on the head as to why this type of action is dangerous to free speech: "The [student assembly] mandating the way a student publication operates, especially in light of a controversial op-ed, sets a dangerous precedent for student press at Wesleyan and in this country."

It is a disturbing trend when those who control the purse seek to use their power to direct the operations of a newspaper, especially when the pretense for doing so involves opinions with which those in power disagree.

Tim4403224246 via Wikimedia Commons

Adam Falk, the president of Williams College, in February disinvited John Derbyshire from the college’s ironically-named “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, saying many of Derbyshire’s expressions amount to “hate speech.” This decision should have come as somewhat of a surprise, given that the speaker series, as its name suggests, is intended to expose students to uncomfortable ideas.

Derbyshire certainly espouses views that range from controversial to nakedly racist. However, the aim of the “Uncomfortable Learning” series is not to endorse the views of its speakers, but merely to hear them.

As Zach Wood, one of the student leaders of the Uncomfortable Learning organization, explained to The Williams Record, “The goal of uncomfortable learning is to understand how someone who is just as sure as you are in their beliefs can think something completely different,” further adding that the lecture series was not necessarily aimed at changing students’ beliefs.

Falk’s choice to ban Derbyshire reflects a paternalistic attitude towards Williams students’ intellectual and emotional capacity to deal with controversial ideas. In his statement about the cancelled event, Falk openly admitted that there are limits to which students’ judgment can be trusted, explaining, “[At] times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.”

Falk not only showed disregard for the student-run group that chose to invite Derbyshire, but also denied the larger student body the opportunity to evaluate for themselves the merits (or demerits) of Derbyshire’s arguments.

Perhaps the speaker series ought to be renamed “Mildly Discomforting Learning.” But, regardless of the name of the series, Falk and the college administration richly deserve this Muzzle.

Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, is the author of "Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent" [Encounter Books, 2nd ed. 2011]. He is at work on a sequel entitled "Conviction Machine."

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