The 2019 Campus Muzzles come in a year when there were many outrages committed on college campuses mostly by administrators catering to their own notions of the good, or catering to students’ politically correct whims. Because of our narrow focus, we have omitted some important and outrageous examples of administrative and student narrow-mindedness. For example, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana dismissed Harvard Law Professor Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., and his wife and co-Faculty Dean Stephanie R. Robinson, from their long-held positions heading Winthrop House, an undergraduate dorm. The fact that Sullivan’s departure comes as a result of some student unrest over his representation, in his highly regarded criminal defense practice, of former movie mogul (and now criminal defendant for rape) Harvey Weinstein, would qualify for a variety of prizes for student hubris and feigned delicacy, and Khurana’s weak and fawning catering to the worst student instincts. But it’s not Muzzle material, alas. The envelopes, please.
It has become commonplace for academic administrators to enact heavy-handed, censorious policies that are incompatible with academic freedom. But at Williams College, it is the students who have become a primary threat to free speech on their own campus.
It all started in late October when several Williams professors circulated a petition urging the college to adopt the Chicago Principles, a rigorous and uncompromising free speech policy statement that has been endorsed by over 60 colleges and universities across the U.S. Within days of receiving the petition, nearly half the tenured faculty had signed; by early November, the petition’s signatories numbered over 100 and represented professors from a wide range of disciplines and identities. A faculty discussion meeting was scheduled for mid-November, and plans for student outreach were initiated.
This is when trouble began. Apparently, the petition was shared with Williams students prematurely by a disgruntled professor who wrongly assumed that the petition would be voted on at the November meeting. In fact, the faculty meeting was to serve merely as a forum for open discussion.
Despite assurances that no voting would take place, a group of about 20 Williams students showed up to the faculty meeting to protest, some waving signs that stated “free speech is hate speech.” Disruption notwithstanding, the faculty was extremely accommodating, inviting the students into the meeting and permitting them to read their response aloud. But the students continued to be disruptive, at one point demanding that white male professors sit down and admit their “privilege,” and at another screaming that faculty members were trying to “kill them.”
What’s so deadly about the Chicago Principles? Widely considered to be the gold standard among colleges and universities committed to academic freedom, the principles uphold free expression and rigorous debate, with the understanding that fostering the ability of students to effectively engage in such debate is essential to the educational mission of higher-ed institutions.
But in their response, Williams students state that the principles “prioritize the protection of ideas over the protection of people,” and go on to accuse right-wing and liberal parties of coopting the term “free speech” and employing it “as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.”
What these students fail to realize is that banishing objectionable ideas from open inquiry does not make them disappear; rather, it allows them to fester by insulating them from scrutiny. To arrive at critical, informed perspectives, even deeply offensive ideas must be allowed to be the subject of civil discussion. Minds are changed not by censoring objectionable ideas but rather by debunking them over time with sustained and careful argument.
We might expect at least the grownups on campus to safeguard free inquiry, even if those in their charge do not yet recognize how precious it is. Sadly, this is not the case at Williams College. Dozens of professors who originally supported the Chicago Principles caved to the unruly students and withdrew their signatures, rendering the petition all but defunct. These professors do their students a great disservice by denying them the opportunity to critically engage with a diversity of viewpoints, including ones they may disagree with. Such instances of intellectual cowardice by the professoriate are the antithesis of the goals of liberal education.
For the student meltdown and the spineless faculty response, Williams College has earned a Campus Muzzle.
In a stunning display of administrative overreach, Middlebury College adds another Campus Muzzle Award to its trophy case.
No doubt wishing to avoid a repeat of the college’s 2017 Charles Murray debacle, Middlebury administrators cancelled a controversial talk only hours before it was scheduled to begin. The disinvited lecturer was far-right Polish politician and heterodox scholar Ryszard Legutko, who has sparked outrage due to his incendiary comments against the gay rights movement. Among academics, Legutko is best known for his book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, which Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule hailed as “the indispensable book about the current crisis of liberalism.”
From the start, Legutko’s upcoming lecture sparked controversy. The lecture was sponsored by Middlebury’s Alexander Hamilton Forum, which aims to “contribute to a culture of reasoned, civil discussion and debate across political and intellectual differences.” Many students and faculty, honoring the Forum’s mission, wanted to hear what Legutko had to say.
In an open letter, forum director Keegan Callanan told Middlebury students that they have a right to “free and open inquiry,” and that they deserve to hear a “multiplicity of perspectives” including those with which they may disagree. Although Legutko’s talk was to be on the relationship between liberty, democracy, and totalitarianism, Callanan assured students that “no questions are out of bounds,” and that if they asked questions about Legutko’s views on gay rights, this could lead to “an interesting exchange about the role of Western values in Poland.”
Legutko’s critics insisted that their protest would be peaceful and non-disruptive—it was to be a celebration of queer identity, with plans to hold signs, play music, dance, and pass out pamphlets informing lecture attendees about Legutko’s views. On the protest’s official Facebook event, an organizer wrote, “It is absolutely, unequivocally not the intent of this protest … to prevent Legutko from speaking. Disruptive behavior of this nature will not be tolerated.”
Despite these assurances, Middlebury administrators cancelled Legutko’s talk at the last minute, citing “safety and security risks” but providing little supporting evidence. The lecture’s proponents were prevented from hearing Legutko’s arguments, and Legutko’s critics were deprived of the opportunity to challenge those arguments. And of course, the would-be protesters were unable to express their dissent. Ultimately, nobody won.
The cancellation did not sit well with many. In principled and direct defiance of the administration’s decision, Middlebury political science professor Matthew Dickinson invited Legutko to speak during his seminar after receiving unanimous support from his students. Legutko accepted the impromptu invite and gave an abbreviated version of the lecture he had planned to give before the administration sent him packing. The seminar discussion that followed was just the sort you’d expect to find at one of the nation’s most highly regarded liberal arts colleges, filled with animated debate, pointed questions, and rigorous argument. It’s a shame that most of Middlebury’s students and faculty were unable to participate due to censorship by the college’s administration.
We commend Professor Dickinson and his students for bucking the administration by exercising their right to academic freedom. Middlebury’s administrators have a thing or two to learn if they want to improve the college’s as-of-late abysmal track record concerning controversial speakers.
Roger Williams University
One of the more blatant forms of campus censorship is when administrators or students attempt to conceal unfavorable publicity by stealing or trashing student newspapers. Of course, such antics are often futile and, worse, counterproductive in the digital age. Yet, year after year, budding censors steal, conceal, or throw away papers featuring unflattering coverage.
Versions of newspaper theft reportedly occurred at two New England universities this year. At Roger Williams University, two students threw away copies of the student paper, The Hawk’s Herald. And on an admitted-students day at UMass Boston, admissions officials hid copies of the student paper featuring a front-page story about a hazmat incident at the school.
In late February, a Roger Williams student was caught on a security camera throwing away copies of The Hawks’ Herald, and reportedly two students later confessed that they removed from newsstands and discarded about 100 copies of the paper. According to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), the students were upset about a front-page report of a busted house party during which two students were tasered by police.
Throwing out such a large quantity of the Hawks’ Herald deprived other students of their right to read the paper. But that’s only part of the story. It also prevented the publisher from giving out copies to many students. Publishing a student newspaper requires time and money, and physical copies of the paper, even those given away for free, are still property of the publisher until distributed to readers. As Adam Goldstein of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) explains:
…[T]aking a large quantity of free newspapers is theft. At first blush, it can seem counterintuitive that you can steal something that’s given away. But the very fact that it can be given away means that the newspaper is property, and the owner of property can choose to give it away one at a time, and defend that right with the authority of law.
This conclusion becomes more natural when you compare newspapers to any other property that’s intended to be given away one at a time. If you take a bucket of Halloween candy, or a pallet of toasters that a bank was going to give away with a new account, or a carton of ketchup packets from a fast food restaurant, it isn’t a defense that the owner was going to give them away anyway. They were giving them away because they got a benefit in giving them out in small numbers to many people. Taking them all at once deprives the owner of that benefit.
For throwing away one-hundred copies of the Hawks’ Herald, those two Roger Williams University students, whoever they may be, win a Campus Muzzle.
A similar situation unfolded at UMass Boston in April. Here is what reportedly happened: on Saturday, April 6, when recently admitted students and their parents were visiting campus for “Welcome Day,” the Mass Media happened to feature a front-page story about the university’s slow response to a dorm hazmat incident that resulted in a student being transported to the hospital. Because admitted-students day is an important opportunity for administrators to promote the university to potential students, not to mention to mom and dad, the admissions staff could not have been too happy about the unflattering page-one displayed at newsstands across the campus. So a couple of rogue staffers hatched a plan to eliminate the problem.
From the SPLC: “Admissions staff, concerned about the university’s image, asked editor Kelsey Hale if the paper could hold off on filling stands [during Welcome Day].” When Hale refused, “staffers put a coat over a prominent stand. When Hale found out and removed it, [the staffers] flipped the newspapers over.” And some 200 copies were missing from other newsstands that rarely go empty.
Hale was incensed. On the Monday following the incident, she published a letter from the editor in which she took the admins to task for their First Amendment violations: “It is disheartening to know that the university cares more about covering up its mistakes, rather than supporting the students who worked hard to produce a reliable, non-biased, factual paper.” (The admissions office later issued a mea culpa in a statement to SPLC, calling the incident “regrettable” and “not a reflection of the beliefs of the office as a whole.”)
In attempting to conceal a negative story from students and parents, the staffers revealed their contempt for the First Amendment and the work of student journalists. Ironically, news of the hazmat incident has now spread far and wide, thanks to a phenomenon dubbed the “Streisand Effect”: most attempts to suppress information end up amplifying the information’s reach. Funny how that works, huh?
For concealing copies of the Mass Media on Welcome Day, the UMass Boston admissions office takes home a Campus Muzzle.
No discussion of the tribulations faced by free speech in recent years would be complete without at least a mention of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where the forces of censorship seem to thrive on the clean air and verdant pastures west of the Hub. And this year the flagship campus of the state university system – considered by many to be the jewel of Massachusetts higher education – has not disappointed us free speech watchdogs. Only this time, in a reversal of the usual scenario, the administration stood up for academic freedom, while a student group sued to enjoin a panel discussion from going forward.
The current incident erupted in April over a panel organized by the Media Education Foundation, a local Northampton group chaired by UMass Amherst faculty member Sut Jhally. All four of the panelists were of a single mind on the focal issue, a claim that pro-Israel groups have assiduously worked to silence pro-Palestinian voices in what is supposed to be a land blessed by the ability of a multitude of views to find expression in the great free marketplace of ideas. In reaction to this obvious one-sidedness in the composition of the panel, student members of the pro-Israeli group “UMass Amherst Student Alliance for Israel” voiced their opposition. So far, so good.
But then the Student Alliance for Israel took a woefully misguided step: it filed a lawsuit in the Suffolk County Superior Court seeking to force the panel’s sponsor to move the program off-campus where it would not so directly annoy the Jewish students who were offended.
The lawsuit was dead-on-arrival. It had virtually no chance of succeeding in a state court in Massachusetts, because the judge was bound to follow the state constitution. The Massachusetts Constitution, as interpreted by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, offers a particularly potent level of protection for free speech – considerably stronger than the protection conferred by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Superior Court Judge Robert Ullman obviously recognized this and told the would-be censors that he could not prevent a speaking event from happening unless there was clear evidence presented to him of a likelihood of violence.
The judge meant, of course, physical harm that comes from violence, not the psychological harm suffered by student snowflakes who do not even want to hear viewpoints with which they strongly disagree.
This imbroglio grows out of an erroneous yet widespread belief among students that the law protects them from offense. As one UMass student who actually attended the event put it, “I want to listen to make sure it isn’t hate speech,” a category of speech claimed to make students feel, in the current jargon, “unsafe.” What these critics fail to understand is that “hate speech” is as much protected by the Constitution as is, for example, “love speech.”
And another irony: Were the program a pro-Israeli event featuring a panel of Zionists, the Palestinians likely would go to court seeking an injunction. And so this time we confer a 2019 Muzzle Award to the pro-Israeli group. Next year we could find ourselves giving the Award to a pro-Palestinian group. As the President of the United States might pithily put it: “Sad!”
Harvey A. Silverglate, a Cambridge-based attorney and author, is co-founder, and a member of the Board of Directors, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He is WGBH’s “Freedom Watch” columnist. Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire are his paralegals and research assistants.