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2018 Campus Muzzle Awards: Four Institutions That Dishonored Freedom

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Illustration by Emily Judem

One of the remarkable things about the persistence of censorship in a society that in theory enjoys First Amendment freedoms is that suppression of speech is found even on college campuses, where (in theory) the doctrine of free speech combines with academic freedom to offer (again, in theory) even more speech protection than in the “real world.”

Unfortunately, speech suppression in academia is pretty much as common as it is outside of the ivy walls, as these examples demonstrate.

UMass Boston And Tufts University

Here’s a twofer: UMass Boston and Tufts University both host Confucius Institutes on their stateside campuses. The institutes, which are housed at more than 100 other American universities, are funded, staffed, and run by the People’s Republic of China for “cross-cultural exchange.”

China has an abysmal record on free speech and academic freedom, principles that most American universities claim as bedrocks of their mission. The mere presence of the Confucius Institute at UMass Boston and Tufts likely chills speech critical — directly or indirectly — of China.

In 2014, the American Association of University Professors called on universities to renegotiate their contracts with the centers or cut ties altogether. Universities “permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate,” the AAUP wrote.

Students, faculty, and outside advocates urged UMass Boston’s administration in January not to renew its contract with the Institute, writing in a letter to interim chancellor Barry Mills, “As a result of [the Confucius Institute's] presence on campus, whether through direct intervention, or pre-emptive censorship, important political and human rights issues are being silenced.”

Despite the pressure, the Institute is still in operation, although the university allowed the contract to expire in April as it “continues to explore options,” according to DeWayne Lehman, a spokesman for UMass Boston. The center offers students non-credit Chinese language courses taught by faculty sent from the Chinese government and study abroad grants to China, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Others, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, have criticized universities' partnerships with the institutes.

Across the Charles River in Medford, Tufts University has stood behind its Confucius Institute. In response to an admonition from Rep. Moulton in March, spokesman Patrick Collins told the Globe that Tufts did not anticipate any changes to its partnership with the institute, saying it has made “valuable learning and cultural contributions” to Tufts. (The university has since announced, on June 12, that it has formed a committee to provide “recommendations concerning the status of the Confucius Institute at Tufts.”)

Promoting understanding of other cultures is an essential part of any good education. But, is the Chinese government the type of partner American universities supposedly committed to the values of free speech and academic freedom should seek? Are there no other ways, perhaps less controlled from abroad, to promote the study and understanding of Chinese language and culture? It may be that, economically, the Confucius Institutes promise cash-strapped universities a cheap way to offer students Chinese language and culture programs. But the academy’s response to offers of cash needs to be consonant with American values of academic freedom.

They ought to be called out. So, this year, UMass Boston and Tufts each take home a Campus Muzzle for their continued partnerships, and its chilling effects on speech, with a body even more hostile to free speech than the modern academic bureaucracy: the Chinese Communist party.

Northeastern University Removes Video Of Public Lecture

File this one in the category of much ado about nothing. Or perhaps in the category of how the modern academic administrator is more interested in his university’s public persona than in providing an accurate historical record.

Barry Bluestone, a prominent economics professor at Northeastern University, made national headlines in February after he said at a public lecture that he wouldn’t mind seeing President Donald Trump dead.

“Sometimes I want to just see him impeached. Other times, quite honestly — I hope there are no FBI agents here — I wouldn’t mind seeing him dead,” Bluestone said, according to The Huntington News, Northeastern’s student newspaper.

Bluestone’s statement came in response to a question about “what should be done about Trump,” according to WBUR. The Jan. 31 lecture, which the university video recorded and uploaded to YouTube on Feb. 5, was about the rule of law and inequality in the U.S.

Indeed, Bluestone’s statement was not charitable. It’s the sort of uncivil jab that has become ubiquitous in the Trump era; the president himself has set the bar very low for public discourse and self-control. Bluestone’s slip was undoubtedly embarrassing, and he acknowledged as much in a very public mea culpa on WBUR.

But Northeastern, like most modern universities run by bureaucrats and public relations types rather than academics, allergic to embarrassing headlines, decided to scrub the video (and hence the public and historical record) of the event from YouTube a few days after uploading it.

“The university and its leaders steadfastly oppose violence in all its forms,” spokeswoman Renata Nyul piously and self-righteously told the Boston Globe. “While faculty members are free to express controversial opinions, the university cannot provide a public platform for comments that could be construed to condone violence. As a result, we have decided to take down the video of this event.”

It is in any event a tenuous claim that Bluestone’s comments could be construed as condoning violence. Even with little context, most reasonable people would interpret Bluestone’s comment as an expression of a wish to see Trump “go away” rather than a call to violence. Bluestone clarified in an interview with WBUR, saying his comments were taken out of context.

“What I was trying to say was that this is the most dangerous president we’ve ever had,” he said. “This person should not remain in the White House, and we should continue to protest it in peaceful ways.”

Bluestone also objected to Northeastern removing the video from YouTube. That makes sense, since, although we cannot know for sure, the video is presumably the best evidence that he was not issuing a threat or condoning violence. This is simply more proof that the university failed in its function of providing a public record so that listeners might make up their own minds. For removing the video of Bluestone’s lecture from the public sphere, Northeastern University has earned a Campus Muzzle.

Harvard College Faith And Action Club

Principles of freedom of speech, religion and association do not deter the ever-increasing number of bureaucrats at Harvard College from throwing their weight around when it comes to student religious life.

In February, Harvard College Faith and Action (“HCFA”), a Christian student group which, since its founding in 2008, has been tied to the national Christian Union, was placed on a “one-year administrative probation,” according to the Harvard Crimson.

The crux of the problem appeared to be that HCFA ousted a female undergraduate from her leadership position after she started to date another female student. It is unclear from the Crimson reports whether the probation was punishment for demoting the homosexual leader or for the HCFA’s connections to the Christian Union, which supposedly violated the college’s requirement that student clubs be independent of umbrella organizations. It appears that both issues irked the college’s administration.

The relationship at the heart of the matter took root when an undergraduate who had found her sophomore year difficult, began a liaison in late summer that, in her junior year, gave her “inexplicable peace,” she wrote to fellow HCFA members. There was one “catch,” she wrote: Her significant other was a female HCFA member.

The students appeared about to engage in a process of working things out, of drawing a line between individual autonomy and group prerogatives. Students since time immemorial have tried, and usually managed, to work out their differences during these four formative years. Neither student was being thrown out of the group, it appears. Rather, the one who was in a leadership position was stripped of her role. But then the bureaucrats stepped in to assert the college’s authority over these intimate details of student life.

None of the students involved appeared to know precisely what being on “administrative probation” entailed for the HCFA. Presumably it could still hold its weekly worship events at Harvard’s Yenching Auditorium. But the group was given a year to demonstrate to the student life bureaucrats that it is in compliance with Harvard’s non-discrimination policies as well as the college’s rule that all student groups maintain their own autonomy.

When the HCFA students return to the campus after summer vacation, they are going to have to get the approval of the student-life administrators, rather than simply of one another, in order to continue as a recognized student organization. For this gross and unwarranted interference in these students’ religious and associational rights, Harvard’s Office of Student Life, whoever they may be, earns a Campus Muzzle.

Controversial Play Canceled At Brandeis University

This story is seemingly straight out of a Shakespearean comedy, with the main show complicated by side-shows and sub-plots. But in the end, Brandeis University’s failure to resolutely rescue playwright Michael Weller’s play “Buyer Beware” ended up in the category of tragedy with a generous dollop of farce.

A once-great university named after one of the greatest Supreme Court justices dedicated to the First Amendment, Brandeis failed to come to the aid of those who were working toward a major production at the school’s Spingold Theater Center.

To pile irony upon irony, the canceled play was about a fictional Brandeis undergrad who undertook a comedy routine after listening to tapes housed in Brandeis’ library of controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. A group of students who deemed the routine racist and offensive pressured the university to cancel the performance. In real life, this is pretty much what happened, and the administration folded.

The details are much in dispute, with the administration claiming that the show’s producers voluntarily pulled out of the project after students voiced their objections, and the producers asserting otherwise. But the details hardly matter, because in the end the university, which has an obligation to protect academic freedom on this liberal arts campus, did nothing to save the doomed project.

When the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus free speech nonprofit organization, wrote to Brandeis on behalf of a free speech coalition, the administration that allowed this farce to proceed claimed it was not responsible for the cancellation of the event. (Disclosure: Silverglate serves on FIRE’s board.)

A more revealing and less equivocating response came from a censorious student leader of Brandeis’ theater arts group. The student claimed that those who called for the play’s cancellation were simply “refusing to further disseminate the idea that, in demanding justice and equality, people from marginalized communities pose some sort of threat to our nation’s state of well-being.” “I struggle to understand,” he continued, “why ‘freedom of speech’ must be tolerated and even elevated before we consider the safety and well-being of individuals who belong to marginalized communities.” (Student “safety and well-being,” it is crucial to bear in mind, were supposedly being threatened by mere words.)

Stripped of its fancy rhetoric, the student censors were simply reiterating a classic argument of censors everywhere: Free speech, if allowed to gain a platform, would insult and therefore “harm” some people who are powerless. And the university named after Louis Brandeis allowed this to happen. For this failure by the students to act like grown-ups and listen to messages that they do not like, and for the Brandeis administration’s failure of duty and leadership, they all have worked together to earn a Muzzle.

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