Campus protests highlight safety vs. free speech

Have presidents and administrators at universities across the nation under-reacted to racial threats and racist incidents? Do students feel safe on their own campuses from intimidation? Does the right to free speech impinge upon the right of others to feel protected from insult or antagonism? These are the questions that burst into the headlines this week after students at the University of Missouri began campus protests that led to the resignation of the school’s president — and then initiated similar demonstrations from Yale to Wright State University. What’s at stake, and what’s being said about the students’ actions? There are a lot of issues at play. Today we offer thoughts from writers around the country. Your thoughts? Email — Ron Rollins

From Eric Zorn, at the Chicago Tribune.

At first, there was something inspiring about the protests at the University of Missouri.

Some 30 African-American players on the school’s football team, supported by their coach and many other teammates, announced they would refuse to practice or play until the university president resigned or was fired over his failure to adequately address incidents of racism on campus.

No football?! Suddenly the nation was paying attention to what was, until then, a local issue.

Most of us weren’t in a position to referee their claims — was President Tim Wolfe irremediably responsible for creating an environment in which some students were the subject of racial epithets and a vandal used feces to draw a swastika? What had Wolfe said or not said that he shouldn’t have? What negotiations, what incremental steps, had been tried and had failed before leading to the dramatic demand? Where was the impasse?

But still. Credit the football players, with a boost from campus activists, for using their great leverage to bring those questions forward, forcing the conversation, prompting a deeper and more urgent look at the long-simmering complaints of minority students at the university.

Good protests attract attention and raise awareness. And by that measure, this was a good protest.

But then, when Wolfe resigned under pressure Monday morning, something about it had become disquieting. The precipitous result felt a little like the fruits of extortion — the school was going to lose $1 million if it had to forfeit Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University — and of mob rule.

Do we want campus athletes and activists to have the power to oust administrators? Always? Or just when we agree with the outcome?

From Charles C. W. Cooke, at The National Review.

Read through any contemporary account of American on-campus silliness, and one word will pop out at you from the pages: “safe.” Up and down the country, the term is en vogue.

At Yale, students are worried about the effects that insensitive Halloween costumes might have upon their “security.” At Colorado College, enrollees are concerned that the screening of a pro-gay film will put their “well-being,” their “identity,” and their “safety” at risk, if not inflict “violence” upon their bodies. At Wesleyan, undergraduates were so outraged by an opinion column in their university newspaper that they tried to shut it down on the grounds that its editors had failed to “provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.” From Boston to Los Angeles, this conceit is thrown around with abandon. …

But at a place of learning? That makes no sense at all. Unlike gay bars or feminist workshops, colleges are inherently pluralist, and they cannot therefore devote themselves to “a common political project” or “movement” without abandoning their purpose. At a stretch, there is an argument for permitting the establishment of “safe spaces” within universities — traditionally we call these “clubs” — but there is no case whatsoever for turning the entire place over to a particular set of ideological presumptions and for punishing or excluding those who decline to acquiesce. …

No college president in the country can be secure in his position, liable as he is to be accused on a moment’s notice of having fostered an “unsafe” environment for his students. On this rationale, there is not a single topic of debate that his immune from the dissenter’s howl. Up goes the hand; out comes the word; down comes the curtain. Because there are no established ideological parameters on a college campus — because, that is, the “spaces” there have no clear walls — there are no objective means by which we might judge what is “safe” to say and what is not.

Americans have long drawn a clear distinction between speech and violence, the general understanding in this country being that abstract expression may only be regulated when it is extremely likely that it will lead to imminent criminal behavior. The suggestion that one man’s political opinions can meaningfully impinge upon another’s “safety” all but explodes that distinction, thereby conflating intrinsically intellectual concepts such as “upset,” “discomfort, “hurt,” and “irritation” with intrinsically physical concepts such as “violence,” “security,” and “sanctuary.”

There is, I think, only one reasonable response to a person who believes that your hypotheses are threatening his physical well being, and that is to laugh in his face until all of the air has left your lungs. In the long term, though, the trend is a dangerous one, for while the kids running around the quadrangles of Yale and Wesleyan may be incorrigibly silly, the ancient ideas upon which they are resting that silliness are once again gaining ground, and, as history teaches us over and over again, there are no more dangerous or unsafe spaces than those in which the censors and the mobs are permitted to roam with impunity.

From Jelani Cobb, at The New Yorker.

Of the many concerns unearthed by the protests at two major universities this week, the velocity at which we now move from racial recrimination to self-righteous backlash is possibly the most revealing.

The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus — important but largely separate subjects — is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point.

Two weeks ago, we saw a school security officer in South Carolina violently subdue a teen-age girl for simple noncompliance, and we actually countenanced discussion of the student’s culpability for “being disruptive in class.” The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract — free speech, respectful participation in class — as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights. This is victim-blaming with a software update, with less interest in the kind of character assassination we saw deployed against Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown than in creating a seemingly right-minded position that serves the same effect. …

The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.

During the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Senator J. Lister Hill, of Alabama, stood up and declared his opposition to the bill by arguing that the protection of black rights would necessarily infringe upon the rights of whites. This is the left-footed logic of a career Negrophobe, which should be immediately dismissed. Yet some variation of Hill’s thinking animates the contemporary political climate. Right-to-offend advocates are, willingly or not, trafficking in the same sort of argument for the right to maintain subordination. They are, however, correct in one key respect: there are no safe spaces. Nor, from the look of things, will there be any time soon.

From Nicholas Kristof, at the New York Times.

On university campuses across the country, from Mizzou to Yale, we have two noble forces colliding with explosive force.

One is a concern for minority or marginalized students and faculty members, who are often left feeling as outsiders in ways that damage everyone’s education. At the University of Missouri, a black professor, Cynthia Frisby, wrote, “I have been called the N-word too many times to count.”

The problem is not just racists who use epithets but also administrators who seem to acquiesce. That’s why Mizzou students — especially football players — used their clout to oust the university system’s president. They showed leadership in trying to rectify a failure of leadership.

But moral voices can also become sanctimonious bullies.

“Go, go, go,” some Mizzou protesters yelled as they jostled a student photographer, Tim Tai, who was trying to document the protests unfolding in a public space. And Melissa Click, an assistant professor who joined the protests, is heard on a video calling for “muscle” to oust another student journalist (she later apologized).

Tai represented the other noble force in these upheavals — free expression. He tried to make the point, telling the crowd: “The First Amendment protects your right to be here — and mine.”

We like to caricature great moral debates as right confronting wrong. But often, to some degree, it’s right colliding with right.

Yes, universities should work harder to be inclusive. And, yes, campuses must assure free expression, which means protecting dissonant and unwelcome voices that sometimes leave other people feeling aggrieved or wounded.

On both counts we fall far short.

We’ve also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of “The Vagina Monologues” because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith.

This is sensitivity but also intolerance, and it is disproportionately an instinct on the left.

I’m a pro-choice liberal who has been invited to infect evangelical Christian universities with progressive thoughts, and to address Catholic universities where I’ve praised condoms and birth control programs. I’m sure I discomfited many students on these conservative campuses, but it’s a tribute to them that they were willing to be challenged. In the same spirit, liberal universities should seek out pro-life social conservatives to speak.

More broadly, academia — especially the social sciences — undermines itself by a tilt to the left. We should cherish all kinds of diversity, including the presence of conservatives to infuriate us liberals and make us uncomfortable. Education is about stretching muscles, and that’s painful in the gym and in the lecture hall.

One of the wrenching upheavals lately has unfolded at Yale. Longtime frustrations among minority students boiled over after administrators seemed to them insufficiently concerned about offensive costumes for Halloween. A widely circulated video showed a furious student shouting down one administrator, Prof. Nicholas Christakis. “Be quiet!” she screams at him. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page denounced “Yale’s Little Robespierres.” It followed up Wednesday with another editorial, warning that the P.C. mind-set “threatens to undermine or destroy universities as a place of learning.”

I suggest we all take a deep breath.

The protesters at Mizzou and Yale and elsewhere make a legitimate point: Universities should work harder to make all students feel they are safe and belong. Members of minorities — whether black or transgender or (on many campuses) evangelical conservatives — should be able to feel a part of campus, not feel mocked in their own community.

The problems at Mizzou were underscored on Tuesday when there were death threats against black students. What’s unfolding at universities is not just about free expression but also about a safe and nurturing environment.

Consider an office where bosses shrug as some men hang nude centerfolds and leeringly speculate about the sexual proclivities of female colleagues. Free speech issue? No! That’s a hostile work environment. And imagine if you’re an 18-year-old for whom this is your 24/7 home — named, say, for a 19th-century pro-slavery white supremacist.

My favorite philosopher, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, argued that there was a deep human yearning to find the One Great Truth. In fact, he said, that’s a dead end: Our fate is to struggle with a “plurality of values,” with competing truths, with trying to reconcile what may well be irreconcilable.

That’s unsatisfying. It’s complicated. It’s also life.

From Nora Caplan-Bricker, at Slate.

This fall’s racially charged incidents are not one-off events, at Yale or most any other American university. Last year, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, then a junior at Yale, was held at gunpoint by campus security on his way home from the library. A current junior, Briana Burroughs, wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News last week in which she described being “harassed in dining halls, at fraternity houses and on New Haven streets by Yale fraternity members and male athletes” who called her a “charity case” and a “ghetto black.” The university has long met calls for the renaming of one of its residential colleges — Calhoun, named for America’s biggest proponent of slavery — with silence.

It’s a common criticism of today’s youth activists that they’re too busy demanding protection to prepare for a lifetime of fighting their own battles: that they want to be able to whine about their feelings when they should be cultivating resilience and learning to debate. But the social structures of campus life — and the violations of its norms, from offensive Halloween costumes to “white girls only” frat party admissions policies — are in fact a university’s concern. I believe in universities as spaces where students are confronted with difficult ideas, where they grow through discomfiture — and I believe that this function is dependent on the slightly utopian illusion of the university as a bubble, inside which even the heaviest debates have a little less gravity than they do out here in real life. Hopefully, Yale is starting to realize the extent to which many students of color feel they have been denied participation in this idyll. When these students use the language of “safe spaces,” it seems to me that they’re not demanding to live in some happy place where they never have to hear or read another word of dissent. It seems to me that they’re asking for a level of acceptance, and ownership, that the majority of students at Yale already feel.

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