Thanks to the Lakeville Journal for publishing my essay on free speech and college campuses as an op-ed this week. To read it, click here or squint hard at the photo or scroll down to read reprint in entirety below.
From The Lakeville Journal, July 6, 2017:
For years, I’ve heard complaints about millennials being too coddled to care about what’s happening except on their screens. So it’s curious to me that there is now complaint about activism on college campuses.
Students are rising up in protest of what many students protested in the 1960s and 1970s: racism, sexism and unfair treatment of marginalized communities. They are rebelling against speakers on college lecture circuits who come to promote views that offend or denigrate whole segments of the college’s population. (Also to peddle their books.)
Some protests have become disorderly, but none have erupted into anything like the violence that roiled campuses when I was in college, when students demonstrated by throwing rocks and bombs and taking over buildings. In 1969, protesters at Harvard shut down the college for an entire semester, and President Nixon declared colleges to be in a state of “anarchy.”
In fact, activism at Harvard goes back long before that. In 1834, students broke windows and destroyed furniture to protest having to learn Latin through rote memorization of a grammar textbook. The entire class was suspended — but the approach to the study of Latin was subsequently revised.
In 1974, when I was a college sophomore, protests at Yale prevented William Shockley from coming to debate his recommendation for voluntary sterilization of people with low IQs.
This was based on data that “proved” the genetic intellectual inferiority of African Americans, later cited by Charles Murray in his book “The Bell Curve,” which argues that due to genetics, social welfare is a waste. Murray’s work has been so widely discredited that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies him as a pseudoscientist.
Perhaps unaware of Vermont’s lamented history with eugenics, Murray was “shocked” by the vehemence of a protest preventing him from speaking at Middlebury College in March.
How should colleges uphold legacies of freedom of thought and speech while adhering to tenets of basic decency that call for civility due people of all races and creeds?
Yale sought to answer this question in 1974, after Shockley’s forced retreat from the campus made headlines. They appointed a Committee on Free Expression chaired by well-known free-speech advocate C. Vann Woodward. They took into account what is often missed by reflexive defenders of free speech today.
The committee found that: “In addition to the university’s primary obligation to protect free expression, there are also ethical responsibilities assumed by a university … [which] sometimes [make it] necessary for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression.” They called it “arrogant insensitivity” to create conditions in which students feel forced to stand up and publicly defend their own human worth.
A speaker who affirms racist, misogynist or classist views may be intellectually provocative for some audiences, but they also legitimize prejudice experienced by many students every day.
Technically, whether or not a campus speaker is permitted to speak has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which guarantees only that the government can’t arrest you for sharing your views. It doesn’t entitle you a platform for your views, or an audience to politely listen to them.
Critics aflame with the passion to uphold “freedom of speech” often change their minds when offensive rhetoric offends closer to home. Take the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, professional provocateur who makes a living touring college campuses denigrating people of color, the disabled, transgender people, religions and women. (“This sexual harassment craze is really just a way for women to tell you they’ve been hit on … it’s a sort of bragging.”)
His appearances usually meet protests — his popularity depends on protests. For years, his speeches were relegated to lesser-known colleges, but his gigs improved considerably when Simon & Schuster gave him a $250,000 book contract. After that, he was invited to speak at Berkeley and to be the keynote at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Both the publisher and CPAC were, apparently, fine with his anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, misogyny, transphobia and racism. But when Yiannopoulos began to extol the virtues of pedophilia, they drew the line. On February 20, the publisher canceled his book contract. The same day, his invitation from CPAC was rescinded. Suddenly, his rhetoric wasn’t just controversial, it threatened a group whose humanity wasn’t up for debate.
Racist, misogynist and bigoted speech is on the rise, fueling a documented increase in hate crimes and incidents. Some say this is an inevitable backlash against “politically correct” attempts to avoid insulting, maligning or marginalizing people. But shouldn’t respecting the sensitivities of others be called simply “correct?”
New attention is being paid to what is protected free speech, and what responsibility should be taken by speakers for their words. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences of it. Today’s students join a long tradition of campus protesters who have helped advance social, cultural and political change.
Helen Klein Ross is a writer who lives in Lakeville and New York City. Her novel, “What Was Mine,” was published last year by Simon & Schuster. She is at work on a novel set in an old house in Connecticut, forthcoming from Little, Brown in 2018.