Free speech and work

Pun­ish­ing em­ploy­ees for com­ments made off the clock

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Twit­ter: @tod­dg­itlin

There’s a story con­ser­va­tives have been telling about the de­cline of free speech on cam­puses, and it goes like this: Amer­ica has spi­raled downward from a golden age, when the groves of academe were precincts of whole-hearted civil free­dom, to to­day, when hy­per­sen­si­tive left-wing stu­dents, ob­sessed by race- and gen­der-based “mi­croag­gres­sions,” clamor for “safe spa­ces” and “trig­ger warnings.”

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence told this story at Notre Dame’s com­mence­ment in May: “Far too many cam­puses across Amer­ica have be­come char­ac­ter­ized by speech codes, safe zones, tone polic­ing, ad­min­is­tra­tion-sanc­tioned po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, all of which amounts to noth­ing less than sup­pres­sion of the free­dom of speech. Th­ese all-too-com­mon prac­tices are de­struc­tive of learn­ing and the pur­suit of knowl­edge, and they are wholly out­side the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion.”

Wholly out­side? The vice pres­i­dent didn’t do his home­work. Amer­i­cans may like to think of their in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing as grounded in clas­si­cally lib­eral ideas, as places where, in the words of John Stu­art Mill, “there ought to ex­ist the fullest lib­erty of pro­fess­ing and dis­cussing, as a mat­ter of eth­i­cal con­vic­tion, any doc­trine, how­ever im­moral it may be con­sid­ered.” But in prac­tice, Amer­i­can cam­puses have rarely been quite so wel­com­ing to non­con­form­ing views. Speech has got­ten fac­ulty fired and stu­dents ar­rested; it has been met not only with dirty looks but also with heck­ling and some­times vi­o­lence.

What’s true is that old forms of cen­sor­ship — by ad­min­is­tra­tive fiat, gov­ern­ing boards, gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions and pros­e­cu­tors — are less com­mon than they once were. To­day, it’s more likely that the call to rule out ob­nox­ious views comes from stu­dents. And yet one way or the other, free­dom is em­bat­tled. Golden ages only show up in rearview mir­rors, and even then, ob­jects may be far­ther away than they ap­pear.

If we look back over the past 100 years, per­haps the low­est tol­er­ance for aca­demic free­dom has co­in­cided with war and global ten­sions. The en­e­mies of dis­sent fre­quently in­voked men­aces from abroad as they clamped down on speech.

For ex­am­ple, in 1917, Columbia Uni­ver­sity, where I teach, found two pro­fes­sors guilty of “dis­loy­alty” and fired them for op­pos­ing U.S. en­try into World War I. The fol­low­ing year, 12 mem­bers of the fac­ulty at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska were made to go be­fore “loy­alty tri­als” con­vened by the state-des­ig­nated Ne­braska Coun­cil of De­fense. Al­though all were cleared, the uni­ver­sity pro­ceeded to force out three of them for “in­cit­ing pub­lic crit­i­cism” of the school.

Like­wise, the Cold War, at its peak, fueled clamor for uni­for­mity. In 1950, 31 pro­fes­sors at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia were fired af­ter re­fus­ing to sign a loy­alty oath.

The pres­sures could be pub­lic — helped along by the FBI and con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors — or be­hind of­fice doors. The em­i­nent so­ci­ol­o­gist Robert Bel­lah char­ac­ter­ized the be­hav­ior of Har­vard Uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors in the mid-1950s as “dis­creet col­lab­o­ra­tion with McCarthy­ism with the pri­mary con­cern of avoid­ing crit­i­cism.” In the fall of 1954, dean McGe­orge Bundy told Bel­lah, who’d be­longed to the Com­mu­nist Party as an un­der­grad­u­ate, that his grad­u­ate fel­low­ship would be in jeop­ardy if he didn’t fully co­op­er­ate with the FBI, in­clud­ing re­veal­ing the names of other party mem­bers. Bel­lah was some­what sur­prised when Har­vard of­fered him a teach­ing po­si­tion the fol­low­ing spring. But it came with the pro­viso that “if, dur­ing Mr. Bel­lah’s year of ser­vice as in­struc­tor, he should refuse to tes­tify about any past as­so­ci­a­tion with Com­mu­nists, the Cor­po­ra­tion would not look with fa­vor on any pro­posal for his reap­point­ment.” Bel­lah turned down the job in fa­vor of a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship in Mon­treal. He joined the Har­vard fac­ulty two years later, with­out the pro­viso.

McCarthy­ism loos­ened its grip, but un­der of­fi­cial pro­tec­tion, white supremacy reigned supreme in the Deep South. In 1956, as law pro­fes­sor Ge­of­frey R. Stone has writ­ten, the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi can­celed an in­vi­ta­tion to a pro-in­te­gra­tion Epis­co­pal speaker af­ter crit­ics com­plained that host­ing him would be “like cod­dling a viper in your own bo­som.” A year later, the gov­er­nor of South Carolina made a pri­vate all-black col­lege fire three pro­fes­sors, one black and two white, for op­pos­ing racial seg­re­ga­tion.

Even in the North, rad­i­cal stu­dents were tar­geted by bul­lies and pros­e­cu­tors. At In­di­ana Uni­ver­sity in 1963, three mem­bers of a so­cial­ist stu­dent group that had hosted a talk ad­vo­cat­ing that blacks win their le­gal and po­lit­i­cal rights “one way or an­other” were pros­e­cuted for ad­vo­cat­ing the over­throw of the state gov­ern­ment.

Of course, stu­dents helped to free cam­pus speech in the ’60s, ush­er­ing in per­haps the clos­est era that Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion has had to a golden age of speech. Cam­puses tol­er­ated some of the most loath­some speak­ers with­out ri­otous re­sponses. In 1963, the Har­vard-Rad­cliffe Demo­cratic Club spon­sored a speech by Ge­orge Wal­lace, the white su­prem­a­cist gov­er­nor of Alabama. In 1966, a group at Brown Uni­ver­sity in­vited Amer­i­can Nazi Party founder Ge­orge Lin­coln Rock­well (a Brown alum) to speak on the charged sub­ject of white back­lash. In his speech, he de­nounced “in­ter­na­tional Jews” for sup­port­ing “com­mu­nism,” pro­mot­ing “race mix­ing” and de­stroy­ing Amer­ica’s cul­ture through con­trol of the me­dia. He com­plained that when he “crit­i­cized Jews” he was “com­pared to an anti-Semite” and “sub­jected to ter­ror­ism” by “bums,” “beat­niks” and “queers.”

But such speeches were sideshows. Those who at­tended fringe lec­tures could bask in the ex­pe­ri­ence of sat­is­fy­ing their cu­rios­ity, learn­ing some­thing about the hu­man con­di­tion, feel­ing the plea­sures of righ­teous in­dig­na­tion and flat­ter­ing them­selves on their tol­er­ance. Else­where, schools re­mained re­sis­tant to lib­eral and rad­i­cal speech. In 1965, a stu­dent group at the Uni­ver­sity of Tulsa in Ok­la­homa in­vited Stu­dents for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety to de­bate the war in Viet­nam. The ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fused to per­mit such a de­bate on uni­ver­sity prop­erty. The an­ti­war speaker — me — had to talk at an off-cam­pus cof­fee­house.

When peo­ple talk about the late ’60s and early ’70s as a golden age of cam­pus speech, they some­times note that bla­tant fir­ings and black­lists were rel­a­tively rare. Op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War did on oc­ca­sion re­sult in pro­fes­sors be­ing squeezed out of work — at Yale, the Uni­ver­sity of Hawaii and the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska. But as one pro­fes­sor, Richard Oh­mann of Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity, him­self a dis­senter, later wrote: “The idea and prac­tices of aca­demic free­dom pro­tected a lot of dis­sent and re­sis­tance dur­ing those years. Few of the dis­senters were fired, al­most none de-tenured. Many lost jobs be­fore ten­ure, then found other jobs.” The abun­dance of jobs lim­ited the dam­age.

Those years also in­cluded some mur­der­ous episodes in the his­tory of Amer­i­can cam­puses. At the outer reaches of re­pres­sion, in 1970, gov­ern­ment forces met un­armed pro­test­ers with gun­fire, with Na­tional Guards­men killing four un­armed demon­stra­tors at Kent State and po­lice open­ing fire on a stu­dent dor­mi­tory and killing two at Jack­son State.

Dur­ing the ’50s and ’60s, it was left-wing speech that was sup­pressed — no­tably with­out any con­ser­va­tive civil lib­er­tar­ian out­cry. In the ’70s and ’80s, a “lin­guis­tic turn” swept the so­cial sci­ences and the hu­man­i­ties: an em­pha­sis on the im­por­tance of lan­guage in so­cial life and phi­los­o­phy, from which some ac­tivists ar­gued that the si­lenc­ing of dis­sent had been baked into every­day speech. Taken-for-granted lan­guage was not in­no­cent; it ex­erted power over the so­cial groups that were in­creas­ingly rep­re­sented on cam­pus. Speech as such no longer de­served pro­tec­tion. “Free­dom” was just an­other word for masked dom­i­na­tion.

By the late ’80s and early ’90s, con­ser­va­tives and some lib­er­als ob­jected that a new “dic­ta­tor­ship of virtue” had come to rule cam­puses. The tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive theme of for­eign men­ace was re­freshed with the charge — not al­to­gether man­u­fac­tured — that “Western civ­i­liza­tion” was the left’s new tar­get. As “straight,” “white” and “male” be­came terms of op­pro­brium in mul­ti­cul­tural and fem­i­nist quar­ters, “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” came to cover any­thing from Stal­in­ist-style cen­sor­ship to stren­u­ous anti-racism, even as the op­po­nents of “cor­rect­ness” were not al­ways scrupu­lous when they en­forced their own or­tho­dox­ies. Though un­re­li­able polemi­cists such as Di­nesh D’Souza made hay with ex­trav­a­gant ac­cu­sa­tions against “il­lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion,” some charges were valid, even if it was peo­ple like D’Souza who made them. Cam­puses be­gan to draw up speech codes, of­ten clum­sily, aim­ing to keep “hate speech” at bay.

Even then, the cen­so­ri­ous mood was more a sub­ter­ranean rum­ble than an out­right cru­sade to crush dis­sent. But se­lec­tive out­rage mush­roomed, es­pe­cially with a swelling as­sump­tion

I saw a demon­stra­tor at Columbia hold­ing a sign say­ing “NO FREE SPEECH.” Thus do some on the left coat a deeply nasty tra­di­tion with a pop­ulist gloss.

that to speak in fa­vor of the ex­is­tence of Is­rael was a car­di­nal vi­o­la­tion of left-wing or­tho­doxy. With the dawn of the 21st cen­tury, ar­gu­ments against free speech as such be­came com­mon­place, and pas­sions rose to the point of out­right vi­o­lence. Though racist and so­cial­me­dia as­saults (nooses, swastikas and even death threats) have erupted against left-wing fac­ulty and stu­dents, the bal­ance of cen­so­ri­ous­ness has turned rad­i­cally. Be­fore this year, I doubt that we would have seen an opin­ion ed­i­tor of Berke­ley’s Daily Cal­i­for­nian main­tain, in de­fense of vi­o­lent “black bloc” protests against right-wing provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los, that “ask­ing peo­ple to main­tain peace­ful di­a­logue with those who le­git­i­mately do not think their lives mat­ter is a vi­o­lent act.”

So it came to pass in March that a speech at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege by con­ser­va­tive scholar Charles Mur­ray, whom crit­ics call a racist and eu­geni­cist, pre­cip­i­tated a riot in which a pro­tester as­saulted and in­jured the pro­fes­sor who in­vited Mur­ray. I saw an anti-Mur­ray demon­stra­tor at Columbia later that month hold­ing a sign say­ing “NO FREE SPEECH.” Thus do some on the left coat a deeply nasty tra­di­tion with a pop­ulist gloss.

Rejecting free speech only un­der­cuts the left. And from a lib­eral point of view, there’s an irony that goes largely un­no­ticed. The in­tense ha­tred of racial “mi­croag­gres­sions” is flour­ish­ing on cam­puses just as state and na­tional Repub­li­can of­fi­cials are zeal­ously prac­tic­ing macroag­gres­sions: in­fring­ing on vot­ing rights, af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and pro­gres­sive ad­vances in crim­i­nal jus­tice. While short­sighted ac­tivists fo­cus on slights (real, imag­ined and ar­guable) at hand, the po­lit­i­cal pow­ers that be are in­dis­putably rolling back equal rights di­rectly and pro­foundly where most peo­ple live — off cam­pus. Yiannopou­los and Ann Coul­ter court easy mar­tyr­dom as Pres­i­dent Trump’s le­gions cheer them on. When de­fend­ers of racial equal­ity take the bait and ob­sess about a few loath­some provo­ca­tions, they plunge into their ad­ver­saries’ trap, di­verted from the po­lit­i­cal arena, where democ­racy and equal­ity badly need them.

Todd Gitlin is a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism and so­ci­ol­ogy and chair of the Ph.D. pro­gram in com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Columbia Uni­ver­sity. He was pres­i­dent of Stu­dents for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety from 1963 to 1964 and helped or­ga­nize the first na­tional demon­stra­tion against the Viet­nam War.

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