If There Is a Free-Speech ‘Crisis’ on Campus, PEN America Says, Lawmakers Are Making It Worse
Free speech is being tested on college campuses by rising numbers of hate crimes and deepening racial tensions, according to a report released today by PEN America, a human-rights association of writers and editors. But the Trump administration’s warnings of a “crisis” overstate the problem, it says, and risk further polarizing colleges.
The 100-page report, “Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America,” finds that threats to speech are coming from both the right and the left. Lawmakers at state and federal levels are, in many cases, making the problem worse by raising “politicized and one-sided alarms over the state of free speech” on campuses, it says.
The association examined 100 speech-related controversies that have broken out in recent years. Often, the authors found, the battles reflected tensions between free speech and the goals of equality and inclusion.
The campus confrontations grabbed the biggest headlines in 2017, “but the intermittent earthquakes of the past few years have been replaced by a near constant — if less sensational — rumble” as colleges work to fend crises off before they erupt, the report says.
Its release comes less than two weeks after President Trump’s executive order threatening to cut off federal research money to colleges that fail to uphold free speech.
Over the weekend, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, speaking at a Harvard Law School symposium, doubled down on that threat.
Jesse Panuccio, principal deputy associate attorney general, warned of a “free-speech crisis” on college campuses, citing specific examples of speech codes, free-speech zones, and “heckler’s vetoes” that he considers First Amendment violations.
“The very core of university life — open debate among scholars and students — is under attack,” he concluded.
The Trump administration has filed statements of interest in five free-speech-related lawsuits, against the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles Pierce College, Georgia Gwinnett College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa. Panuccio warned that more challenges would be coming.
Efforts to legislate free-speech protection represent to many an unwelcome intrusion into colleges’ affairs. But campuses aren’t the only places where these battles are being waged.
“Far from taking place in isolation behind ivy-covered walls, today’s campus free-speech controversies are inextricable from the social and political upheaval of this historical moment,” PEN America’s chief executive officer, Suzanne Nossel, said in a statement accompanying the report.
“While we have never thought that there was a crisis per se when it comes to campus speech, there are legitimate concerns about ideas and viewpoints that have become hard to voice amid a climate of intense ideological rancor,” she wrote. “While President Trump has spotlighted threats to speech emanating from the left, our analysis reveals that intolerance of opposing views cuts across the political spectrum.”
The national debate over free speech on campus has become, in the Trump era, “a deeply partisan feud, with each side trying to catch the other in transgressive acts that can be amplified to rile up the faithful,” the report says.
One such skirmish broke out last week, when safety concerns prompted Beloit College to cancel a lecture by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a private security company whose employees were implicated in the 2007 deaths of Iraqi civilians.
The event, hosted by the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group, was called off after protesters pounded on drums and piled chairs onto the stage where Prince was to speak.
Prince, who is the brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, suggested to the Beloit Daily News that a lawsuit may be coming. “It’s sad the president and the administration of this college lacked the moral courage to enforce free speech and to defend free speech,” he said. “Fortunately, President Trump will defend free speech, and I think the college will be hearing from the court soon on this, because enough is enough.”
Beloit released a statement saying that it had acted out of concern for student safety, and that the protesters’ actions jeopardized the college’s commitment to open dialogue. “Tonight’s events fell unacceptably short of this core principle, and we condemn the behavior of those who disrupted the event,” it said. “The college will begin an investigation immediately.”
The college also posted an explanation of why it had allowed Prince to speak but then canceled the lecture.
Nossel said it was unfortunate that Beloit couldn’t find a way to allow Prince to talk by changing the venue or finding some other nonviolent way to keep protesters from interfering. “While students were absolutely within their rights to object to Prince and his message, they should have done so without impairing his free-speech rights and those of those who chose to listen to him,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.chro
Free Speech as ‘the Bedrock’
PEN America expressed worry about a tendency among some students to view free-speech protections as a cover for bigotry. Given the natural outrage some feel when a white supremacist or someone they consider a war criminal is allowed to speak on campus, the group says, it is important to ensure that students appreciate the importance of free speech “as the bedrock of an open, democratic, and equitable society.”
Leading up to the report’s release, the researchers invited groups of students, faculty members, administrators, and others for face-to-face discussions on four campuses that have been flashpoints for free-speech controversies: the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Middlebury College, and the University of Maryland at College Park.
Among the key conclusions they came away with:
Colleges are seeing more incidents of hateful expression and intimidation.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the number of hate groups nationwide grew from 917 in 2016 to 1,020 in 2018, the report notes. College administrators are struggling to respond in ways that balance the goals of free speech and inclusion.
Faculty members are the targets of outrage campaigns from both left and right, causing serious threats to academic freedom.
The Justice Department is raising politicized alarms over the state of free speech. Similar one-sided attacks are happening at the state level as lawmakers seek to legislate free-speech protections.
Even Trump has acknowledged that statements by officials of his own administration about a free-speech crisis are “overblown.”
Professional provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer have faded from the scene, but they’ve left an impact on the campuses they visited. Along with more-robust security measures, colleges have had to overhaul how they communicate with students before, during, and after a free-speech controversy.
The PEN America report includes updated guidelines for students, faculty members, and administrators on how to navigate campus controversies in ways that protect free speech while making diverse students feel welcome and supported.
When someone has been offended by a racist remark or sign, the immediate aftermath might not be the best time for a lecture about free speech, the group says. Administrators should condemn hate speech and reach out to those who are hurt by it. They should also make sure that the rights of both speakers and protesters are protected.
The report mentions a bridge that crosses the Mississippi River to link two sides of the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. Every fall, students paint the panels of the pedestrian walkway to showcase their clubs. When College Republicans in 2016 wrote “Build the Wall,” the message was soon graffitied over by “Stop White Supremacy.” Protests erupted over what should be allowed as free speech or condemned as hate speech.
“The controversy over one bridge is instructive,” the report says, “because it highlights how campuses have become a proxy for national political and social conflicts writ large in which speech has taken on great significance, and in which neither side is willing to cede an inch — or a mural — to the other.”