Students and faculty at Yale University and the University of Missouri have spent the past few days demanding resignations and strong-arming student reporters, all in the name of justice, equality, and sensitivity.
Their concerns are familiar, but their tactics reveal a new understanding of speech rights that, if the students had it their way, would put many of us in handcuffs.
At Yale University, associate master at Silliman College Erika Christakis caused controversy by responding to an email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee about Halloween costumes. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” she asked.
She offered up the opinion of her husband, the master at Silliman College. “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
The idea that students should deal with a problem on their own proved too terrifying for Yale’s totalitarian toddlers, who promptly lost it at Erika’s husband.
Surrounding Nicholas in the middle of a quad, students demanded that he apologize for causing “pain” and failing to make the college their “home” and “safe space.” In the words of one student, Yale “is not about creating an intellectual space.”
Following the public attack on Christakis, students began protesting alleged systematic racism at Yale, one of the most liberal and inclusive campuses in America.
Students at the University of Missouri protested alleged incidents, racial and otherwise, at their own school. A graduate student went on a hunger strike and the football team threatened not to play until the university president resigned.
Why? Because the president didn’t validate the Ferguson lie quickly enough and failed to instigate the necessary witch hunt after incidents of racism on campus. The president resigned last week.
Forever aggrieved and unappeased, the Missouri protests continued, with students and faculty attempting to physically block the media from covering them. The rights of the free press, in the logic of social justice, end where they might hurt someone’s feelings or question the narrative.
A professor of media studies, Melissa Click (whose expertise includes Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight series, and Lady Gaga), demanded that a student reporter leave the protest. “I need some muscle over here!” she shouted hysterically when the student informed her that he had as much a right as anyone to be there.
The student body president, the same person who claimed to have had a racial slur thrown at him, wrote that the KKK was “confirmed to be sighted on campus,” then admitted that, no, that was a lie.
To be sure, students have reason to voice their concerns about racism at the University of Missouri. Police arrested two white students who threatened to kill any black students they came across. But when the protestors’ goals spill over into preventing not just violence, and threats of violence, but disagreeable language in general, they undermine their own credibility.
In the end, University of Missouri administrators caved to students’ demands that free speech be suspended. An email urged students to report any hurtful speech to university police.
Students at other institutions, observing how spineless the average college administration is, are following suit. Ithaca College protestors are calling for a vote of no confidence against their president and organizing a “die-in” to protest all the apparent fatalities that occurred because their school isn’t “safe” enough.
It’s unclear how colleges will function if undergraduates can exercise veto power over all policies and personnel.
A common thread to the protests is the way students understand free speech. Where free speech exists, students complain about people abusing it. Fine. But students shouldn’t be so quick to give up their freedoms for a little “safety” from bad words. Those who do, as Ben Franklin wrote, “deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Students have come down firmly on the side of safety, demanding infantile treatment and condemning those who advocate for civil liberties. Amherst College students recently demanded that the college president denounce people who post “free speech” posters.
A few members of the Hamilton Diversity Council recently issued a petition calling on the school to block access to YikYak through WiFi and to request that the app developer prevent access entirely at Hamilton College. We at Enquiry, having also felt the wrath of anonymous meanies on the internet, still can’t quite throw our hat in with crude censorship.
Nor can we agree to an understanding of free speech based on power. The idea that free speech is unjust because certain people are more often the targets of vitriol than others amounts to a double standard. A UConn professor recently published a piece in the New Yorker arguing the nonsensical line that “the freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the disempowered.”
The asymmetry of the words “offend” and “bully” notwithstanding, his argument leads to the conclusion that freedom of speech protections must be applied unequally to fix existing inequalities. Any understanding of speech based on power leads without fail to the idea that laws protecting free speech should be applied only to the supposedly disempowered. In this view, free speech is not a principle, but a tool of power to be granted and withheld at will.
A term exists for the unequal application of the law, and it’s called arbitrary government.
If we want to live in a place where the law applies equally to all, free speech is part of the bargain. Where the freedom to offend depends on a poorly defined context of power relations, free speech does not exist.
If, on the other hand, we want to live in a place where inequalities in one area find resolution, ad hoc, through unequal laws in another, we’re on the road to a very dim future.