Credit: Emily Judem/WGBH News

2017 Campus Muzzle Awards: Four Institutions That Dishonored Freedom

July 3, 2017

Middlebury

“Since Trump’s election as president, and even in the long campaign that led to it, colleges across the country have struggled to balance free speech with an atmosphere that makes students feel safe and accepted.”

So wrote The Boston Globe’s higher education reporter, Laura Krantz, in her recounting how an apparent but unchecked minority of Middlebury College students engaged in sufficiently disruptive behavior to drive off campus Charles Murray, the controversial co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Murray has written a number of highly respected sociological studies of racial, economic and social stratification, but his most controversial Bell Curve volume has earned him a “white nationalist” classification by the increasingly intolerant Southern Poverty Law Center. He is the target of “progressive” student protesters, many of whom, we can be certain, have not read the book.

On March 2, as Murray’s talk on his latest book, Coming Apart, got underway, students turned their backs to the speaker, and made sufficient noise to make it impossible for Murray to proceed. When officials moved Murray into a room with video broadcast facilities from where he resumed (and ultimately finished) his speech via livestream, students pulled fire alarms and made so much noise that Middlebury decided to get Murray off campus ASAP.

Murray noticed a qualitative difference between protests against his speeches on other campuses since publication of The Bell Curve, and the Middlebury imbroglio: In the latter, the students (reportedly joined on the streets outside the lecture hall by local hooligans) succeeded in forcing the premature termination of the event. Murray and his faculty sparring partner (and cordial critic of his thesis), Prof. Allison Stanger, ran for their car. (Stanger was injured getting into the car and briefly hospitalized with a sprained neck.)

In an earlier era, students made their disapproval known but then quieted down to allow the speaker to be heard. (During the '60s, students did engage in violent anti-war protests, but they were punished harshly by their colleges, and those who injured people or damaged property were criminally prosecuted.) At prior events, wrote Murray in a piece for the libertarian-conservative American Enterprise Institute, “negotiated agreements [with student protestors] have always worked … [and] I have been able to give my lecture to an attentive (or at least quiet) audience despite an organized protest.” His sadly sensible conclusion is that the Middlebury incident “has the potential to be a disaster for American liberal education.”

Babson

The improbable election of President Donald Trump has provided additional impetus for campus punishment of speech. College campuses, always on the alert lest some politically incorrect thought emerge from some student’s brain through his or her tongue, too often experience a shoot first and get the facts later modus operandi. Boston’s Babson College furnishes a recent example sufficiently serious to merit a Campus Muzzle.

It began when two Babson students, Parker Rand-Ricciardi and Edward Tomasso, drove to Wellesley College the day after Donald Trump’s surprise (especially to many academics and students who overwhelmingly supported his Democratic opponent) victory. Once at Wellesley, they drove around yelling “Trump 2017” and “Make American Great Again.”

When word filtered back to Babson, members of the faculty and administration, rather than providing the measure of adult supervision one hopes for from, well, adults, reacted with fury. Why? Well, rumor had it, via social media, that Rand-Ricciardi and Tomasso had shouted not campaign slogans, but instead had peppered the Wellesley students with racist and homophobic epithets, including outside of the college’s African-American cultural center.

Before anyone at Babson bothered to verify the rumors, Babson President Kerry Healey, an otherwise competent and sober-minded leader, joined by Dean of Students Lawrence Ward and an impressive 200 faculty members, excoriated the two students over whom they exercised considerable power. The holier-than-thou rage by these supposedly responsible adults cooled down only after Wellesley campus police announced they found no evidence to support the rumors of racism. By the time the truth emerged, Babson officials had already banned the two students from the campus.

It was perhaps no great surprise to outside observers that Babson’s faculty and administration jumped to their hasty conclusion that the two students were, in fact, homophobes and racial bigots, since academic professionals have since the mid-1980s been moving toward an exaggerated belief that racism, sexism and homophobia are omnipresent. (Thus, the majority of campuses, as reported by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, maintain speech codes notwithstanding the schools’ theoretical obeisance to academic freedom and free speech principles.) But the howls of outrage came as well from President Healey, who, before arriving as Babson’s president, enjoyed a successful life in politics (she was Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor from 2003-2007), philanthropy, and business.

This time the imbroglio ended happily, with the two rambunctious and somewhat rude students accepted back on Babson’s campus. But surely Babson’s entire student body did get the message that they had better watch their tongues, theoretical academic freedom and free speech notwithstanding.

Wellesley

In the wake of controversial feminist and Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis’ March 15 visit to Wellesley College, a group of faculty members suggested Wellesley adopt a process for determining whose ideas can be heard on campus – an oddly anti-intellectual and illiberal proposal for a liberal arts campus.

Kipnis’ talk, invited by the Wellesley Freedom Project as part of its Censorship Awareness Week, was based on her latest book, "Unwanted Advances", and delved into the book’s thesis: that federal overreach into, and bureaucratic micromanagement of campus sexual assault is disempowering, rather than helping, college women. Kipnis’ take on the hot-button topic was doubtless meant to attract disagreement. Some students from the campus group Sexual Assault Awareness for Everybody (SAAFE), for instance, responded to Kipnis’ work in a video posted to Facebook that claimed, among other things, that Kipnis’ work “minimizes the experiences of survivors of sexual assault”.

A few days after the event, on March 20, six professors who sit on the college’s Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity (CERE) recommended in a faculty-wide email that Wellesley rethink how controversial speakers are invited to campus. “There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty,” read the email, referring to Kipnis and other unnamed controversial speakers who have been invited to campus over the past few years. Thus, the email’s logic went, those inviting controversial speakers to campus should “consider whether, in their zeal for promoting debate, they might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups.”

The signatories of the email then set out the standards by which to judge whether a speaker is “actually qualified” to speak at Wellesley, including whether the speaker is credentialed and “has standing in his/her/their discipline.” Finally, the committee volunteered to serve as a “sounding board” to help campus groups “think through the various implications” of inviting such speakers.

Following the professors’ lead, the student newspaper, The Wellesley News, ran an April 12th staff editorial that argued in true Orwellian fashion that “shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech.”

Academic freedom advocate Conor Friedersdorf responded in The Atlantic to the committee’s recommendations, pointing out that such an illiberal scheme has no place at a liberal arts college, including an all-female one. “Wellesley women are formidable,” Friedersdorf wrote. “They can get through a Laura Kipnis lecture unharmed.” We agree.

Salem State

After some students at Salem State University objected to a digital artwork in a campus exhibit that depicted members of the Ku Klux Klan as a warning against discrimination, administrators temporarily shuttered the gallery, before reopening it and enclosing the offending work behind a black curtain.

The exhibit, titled “State of the Union”, included works intended to “explore environmental issues, social inequities, and income inequality”, according to the university’s website. Thus, the exhibit was, in part, intended to be politically provocative at a time of national division over an important presidential election.

According to artist Gerry Harley, his work, “Meeting Under a Black Moon on the Plains of Despair”, which plainly depicts six hooded Klansmen, was meant as a social commentary and warning about the fringe groups attracted to Donald Trump’s controversial (and, to many, hateful) rhetoric about certain immigrants.

But apparently the exhibit’s purpose — and the artist’s message — were lost on some students who took to Twitter to express their dismay that the university would showcase such a provocative image in a campus gallery: “Why did Salem [S]tate think it was OK to put a pic of the KKK in the art gallery during election time??” read one Tweet, according to InsideHigherEd.com. Other students wondered whether the university was somehow promoting the Klan’s hateful message.

Works of art can be interpreted in myriad ways by viewers, and the best ones usually well up strong emotions within viewers, so it’s understandable how, in the racially charged environment that accompanied the 2016 election, some students expressed strong feelings about a piece that shows a notoriously racist group.  

But what’s not forgivable is the university’s response to the students’ concerns. Administrators initially responded to the outrage by displaying commentary text alongside the work explaining the artist’s vision; covering the gallery’s glass doors so passersby wouldn’t glimpse the artwork unintentionally; and posting a warning outside the gallery that some artwork in the exhibit might offend visitors. 

Then, after hosting an open forum during which Harley explained, to the apparent dissatisfaction of the objecting students, that he intended to create a piece of jarring social commentary that warned about the dangers of Trump’s rhetoric, the university announced, in a joint letter to the campus from Mary Melilli, chair of the school’s Art + Design program, and gallery curator Ken Reker, that the gallery would be temporarily closed while administrators and students discussed how to “move forward”.  

Eventually, the exhibit was reopened, but with the offending painting placed within a “pipe-and-drape enclosure.” For censoring art, Salem State gets a 2017 Campus Muzzle.

A Special Mention (Favorable): Turning Point USA

Blacklists do not enjoy a good reputation among liberty lovers throughout our nation’s often tumultuous history. Even though blacklisting by non-governmental groups is technically an exercise in free speech by which the group urges that society at large, or at least correct thinking people, refuse to engage with those whose actions or ideas place them outside the sphere of the blacklisters’ notions of social, political or intellectual respectability, such an exercise usually has decidedly anti-liberty consequences.

Turning Point USA (“TPUSA”), a conservative campus group organized for the entirely understandable purpose of giving right-of-center students a vehicle with which to combat the current campus mania for censorship and intolerance coming mainly from the left, created its Watchlist of professors thought to be engaging in censorial practices that made conservative students reluctant to express views at odds with prevailing liberal campus orthodoxy.

TPUSA’s website claims that the group intends “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” While critiques of the unreasonable and anti-intellectual pressures exerted by the campus forces of “political correctness” are well-taken (that’s partly what these Campus Muzzles are all about, after all), the Watchlist mechanism is an example of the cure being as damaging as the illness.

Instead of creating a list that has such an unsavory McCarthyite aroma to it, it would be better if TPUSA would use its considerable ambition and energy to expose individual instances of academic censorship or inappropriate one-sidedness, especially within the classroom where politics should be studied but not practiced in a partisan manner.

TPUSA’s censorious reaction to the problem of academic censorship did bring to the fore one academic whose approach to the issue should earn him a real July 4th liberty award. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, had written in The Boston Globe, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, his view that “guns facilitate hate.” Galea, in his role as academic, also expressed in the classroom his opposition to gun rights because, he reasoned, gun violence is an academically germane topic of legitimate concern for a public health professor. When he found himself listed on TPUSA’s Watchlist, he actually defended that group’s right to exercise its freedom of expression.

Professor Galea’s generous and entirely appropriate support of the expressive right (although not necessarily the wisdom) of his critics to engage in a blacklist in supposed support of diversity of opinion must have flummoxed TPUSA, which promptly removed Galea from the blacklist. So we conclude this year’s Campus Muzzles with the uplifting notion that a group devoted to blacklisting speech that the group does not like, ended up removing one speaker from its list when he vigorously defended, even while he criticized, that group’s right to blacklist him! We congratulate Professor Galea for his generosity of spirit and his devotion to free speech, and, in this instance at least, we congratulate TPUSA for removing him from its blacklist.


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