The Campus Muzzles are awarded annually to those New England institutions of higher education whose students, faculty, or administrators engage in the censorship of speech or expression. The 2019-2020 academic year was another grand slam for Muzzle-worthy behavior, with many deserving candidates and a particularly diverse array of censorious behaviors.
This year, five colleges and universities — all, by pure accident, located in Massachusetts — beat out the competition to join the hallowed ranks of New England’s most illustrious academic censors.
Without further ado, here’s this year’s list:
As a private institution, Babson College is not bound by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, the college explicitly promises to respect and protect the academic freedom and free expression of its faculty and students, and is thus contractually obligated to uphold these commitments, even when doing so puts the college at odds with the moral fashions of the day. Unfortunately, when these commitments were put to the test, Babson chose to sacrifice one of its adjunct professors to a right-wing Twitter mob, rather than abide by its promise to defend the free expression of its faculty.
In January, Asheen Phansey, an adjunct professor who frequently taught courses for Babson’s MBA program, was fired after making a crass political post on his personal, private Facebook page. Phansey’s now-deleted post, which was a reaction to President Trump’s threat to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated against the U.S. for killing one of its top military leaders, juxtaposed Trump’s threatened war crime with a hypothetical action of similar magnitude and significance, but on American soil and with a satirical twist. Phansey wrote: “In retaliation, Ayatollah Khomenei [sic] should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb,” and suggested the Mall of America and the Kardashian residence as examples.
Phansey’s post was clearly a humorous attempt at rhetorical hyperbole. Whether or not his attempt was successful, it strains credulity to characterize the post as either a “true threat” or “incitement” (these are technical, narrowly defined categories of speech that are not protected under free expression principles).
Further, Phansey’s post is an instance of political speech, which enjoys the highest protections under the First Amendment, and which colleges and universities — even private ones like Babson — have compelling reasons to diligently protect (here are Adam Steinbaugh’s legal analysis of these points, in his letter sent to Babson President Stephen Spinelli on behalf of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)). [Disclaimer: Coauthor Harvey Silverglate co-founded FIRE, and currently sits on the board of directors.]
Everything went downhill when a screenshot of Phansey’s private Facebook post made its way to Twitter. The screenshot was retweeted hundreds of times, with angry right-wingers demanding that Babson fire the errant professor, and some even demanding that Phansey’s citizenship be revoked so that he could be deported. A Babson College phone number was circulated widely on social media, and the college was no doubt inundated with calls and emails calling for action against Phansey.
Babson’s response was swift and disappointing. Phansey was suspended, pending a “thorough” investigation. A mere day after the investigation was announced, Phansey was fired. Clearly, Babson chose the politically expedient option, and prioritized quelling a public controversy (and appeasing the Twitter mob) over honoring its own stated commitments to academic freedom and free expression.
Though some would have us believe that “cancel culture” on college and university campuses is solely a product of the progressive left, this instance of censorship at Babson College exemplifies that attacks on free expression can and do come from the conservative right, as well. It seems that both ends of the political spectrum are willing to resort to censorship when it is politically convenient to do so.
By succumbing to outside pressure and firing Phansey, Babson College has signaled that its stated commitments to academic freedom and free expression are empty. This is bound to have a chilling effect on speech on Babson’s campus. If a faculty member can be investigated and subsequently fired for private political speech that has no bearing on his educational instruction, no one is safe.
For violating its stated promises to uphold academic freedom and free expression, Babson College earns a Campus Muzzle.
Harvard and Tufts Universities
No Campus Muzzle list would be complete without an instance of censorship involving a student newspaper. This year’s example involves not one, but two universities, with certain elements in each demanding that the truth be put aside to accommodate the feelings of those students who protest the loudest, at the expense of objective, fact-based reporting.
Last September, The Harvard Crimson requested comment from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during its reporting of a student-led rally that called for the abolition of ICE. This incensed the rally’s organizers, who argued that Crimson reporters had virtually “tipp[ed] [ICE] off” to the identities of Harvard’s vulnerable students. This claim is rather incredible, given that The Crimson did not disclose any student names or immigration statuses to ICE. Some even accused the paper of literally “call[ing] ICE on their fellow students.” Again, this is a blatant mischaracterization, as Crimson reporters only contacted ICE after the rally had concluded, and merely asked ICE officials if they wanted to comment on the rally.
In an eloquent note to readers, Crimson writers defended the student paper and explained that under widely accepted journalistic standards, every person or organization criticized in a story must be given the opportunity to respond. Crimson reporters were professionally obligated to seek comment from ICE because they were covering a rally that called for the abolition of ICE.
Unsurprisingly, this explanation did not appease the would-be censors, who went so far as to create an online petition that demanded an apology from The Crimson for the “harm [it] inflicted on the undocumented community” (no plausible indication as to what exactly this “harm” consisted of). The petition also demanded that The Crimson promise to never again call on ICE for comment. Naturally, The Crimson refused. This further incensed the triggered students, who subsequently encouraged Harvard’s student organizations to boycott the paper until The Crimson recants.
Meanwhile, writers at The Tufts Daily got wind of all of this, and decided to stand with their neighboring student journalists in defending fact-based, objective reporting. The Daily published an admirable editorial that commends Crimson reporters for their stalwart adherence to ethical reporting standards.
Predictably, The Daily’s editorial faced the same sort of blowback that The Crimson’s original article received. Unfortunately, rather than follow The Crimson’s unyielding example, the managing board of The Daily denounced its own editorial, and apologized for causing the undocumented community at Tufts to feel “threatened” (no hint as to how the editorial could possibly be perceived as threatening).
These events at Harvard and Tufts demonstrate that the unrelenting antagonism facing the press nowadays (in large part due to the incessant goading of our current commander-in-chief) does not stop at the university door. Indeed, student journalists may be particularly vulnerable, due to the “outrage culture” permeating higher education [read coauthor Monika Greco’s analysis of this phenomenon].
The line between opinion writing and news reporting, which used to be sacred, is now crossed with abandon by those journalists who would rather sacrifice the objectivity of their reporting than face the wrath of so-called “social justice warriors.” Writers at The Harvard Crimson decided to honor the delineation between opining and reporting by providing balanced coverage of the anti-ICE rally. Ultimately, they paid the price. The Tufts Daily, after their defense of The Crimson drew the same ire, buckled under the pressure and withdrew their own editorial. For this shameful about-face, The Tufts Daily co-earns a Campus Muzzle, together with those Harvard student activists who encouraged a boycott of The Crimson.
College of the Holy Cross
Students at the College of the Holy Cross take the cake (or rather, the Muzzle) for the most blatant instance of campus censorship on this year’s list.
Back in November, Heather Mac Donald, a prominent conservative intellectual and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, gave an invited talk on her latest book "The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture." Her message to Holy Cross undergraduates was that they are some of the most privileged individuals in history, that they should joyfully pursue the many educational opportunities available to them, and that they should reject the “perpetual victimhood” mentality that is promulgated by academia’s “diversity bureaucracy.”
Unsurprisingly, Mac Donald became a flashpoint on campus. Many students felt that the subtext of her talk, characterized by Holy Cross Dean of Students Michele Murray as the argument that “discrimination no longer exists, or at least that we should not be bothered by it”, blatantly ignores the many ways in which higher education continues to perpetuate discriminatory practices against minority students.
Unfortunately, rather than challenge Mac Donald during the Q&A period after her talk, some Holy Cross students decided to prevent critical dialogue altogether by depriving Mac Donald of an audience. Student protesters devised a scheme to block their fellow students from even accessing the venue in which Mac Donald was slated to speak. They gathered outside the building well before the talk was scheduled to begin, and when the doors opened, they flooded the auditorium and occupied a majority of the seats. The venue soon reached capacity, after which public safety officers were forced to turn away scores of students who actually wanted to hear Mac Donald out.
It gets worse. Ten minutes into Mac Donald’s talk, the student protesters began shouting “My oppression is not a delusion!” “Your sexism is not welcome!” “Your racism is not welcome!” “Your homophobia is not welcome!” “YOU are not welcome!” Reportedly, school administrators present at the event did little to stop this cacophony. They stood by as the chanting protesters slowly filed out of the auditorium, drowning out Mac Donald’s response in the process. Ultimately, the stunned Mac Donald was left to address a greatly reduced audience (consisting of those students and faculty members who managed to secure seats despite the protesters’ attempt to occupy the entire auditorium).
The hecklers’ veto, in which protestors “veto” a speaker by engaging in behavior so disruptive that the speaker cannot continue, or the audience cannot hear the speaker, is a troubling tactic frequently employed by students in response to controversial speakers on their campuses. The incident at Holy Cross is an especially flagrant example, because not only did the student protesters momentarily drown out the speaker, but they also prevented most of the would-be listeners from even being in the same room as the speaker.
What these students fail to realize is that diversity in higher education involves much more than the color of one’s skin, or one’s sexual or gender identity, or one’s cultural or socioeconomic background. True diversity in higher education cannot be achieved unless colleges and universities also accommodate a diversity of ideas, viewpoints, and worldviews. Mac Donald’s arguments, as controversial as they are, should have been recognized as legitimate contributions to Holy Cross’s intellectual community, and students should have been allowed to critically engage with them. Unfortunately, intolerant students robbed many of their peers of this valuable opportunity.
Harvard Law School
Law students who excel at their studies are qualified, because of their academic accomplishments, to serve as law clerks for state and federal judges. These plumb positions help these students to learn about the inner workings of the court system in general, and to work with their judge in deciding cases and crafting intellectually satisfying opinions explaining the case outcomes. Students who clerk for judges have a big leg-up when it comes time to obtain post-clerkship jobs in the public and private sectors.
One long-standing tradition has been that many, if not most, students do not limit their clerkship applications only to judges with whom they are politically and philosophically in sync. They are seeking experience in the real world of the judiciary, and so it is as useful to them, if not more useful, to clerk for a judge who comes from a point on the ideological/political spectrum opposite to that of the clerk. By the same token, serious and open-minded judges frequently hire at least one student clerk (federal judges have several clerks) who has a political perspective different from that of the judge, for such intellectual diversity within a judge’s chambers tends to produce better reasoned legal opinions.
This long tradition is being challenged in the current age of ideological rigidity in which students, more and more, consider those who disagree with them to be “wrong” rather than simply “different” or “in disagreement.” As Deirdre Fernandes reported in The Boston Globe in January, conservative judges appointed by President Donald Trump are increasingly viewed by these students —particularly by certain elite Harvard Law students who have more clerkship choices than students at less elite law schools — as being off-limits for their clerkship applications. As one student ideologue explained to Fernandes; “[S]ome students oppose the idea of working for judges with such strident [i.e. conservative] views and want more out of their clerkship than to burnish their resume.”
Some legal scholars, reported Fernandes, worry that this trend “could further polarize the legal profession and do the country more harm than good.” Harvard Law Professor Charles Fried, one of the rare conservatives on the Harvard Law faculty, worried out loud that such parochialism is bad for the students’ perspective, but also harmful to the ability of conservative judges to gain insight by having a liberal clerk in his/her chambers. Nancy Gertner, a retired Massachusetts federal judge now teaching at Harvard Law School, who herself was a law clerk after graduating from Yale Law School, told Fernandes: “You can’t be in a position to say there has to be an orthodoxy to become a judge or work for a judge.” [Disclosure: Coauthor Harvey Silverglate is a long-time personal friend of Prof. Gertner, and the two were law partners for many years before Gertner ascended to the federal bench.]
Sometimes the narrow-minded among us, by exercising censoriousness and a holier-than-thou mentality, end up not only foregoing an opportunity to see how “the other side” thinks, but also the chance to influence judges with whom they disagree politically. For this narrow-mindedness, we award these self-censoring students a Campus Muzzle.
Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer. He is the coauthor, with Sidney Powell, of Conviction Machine [Encounter Books, available now].) Monika Greco, Silverglate’s legal research assistant, is an incoming Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.