Students: Fight Racism, Not Free Speech

Students at Missouri and Yale shouldn’t fight to repeal the freedoms that previous generations of campus rebels won.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty

The ouster of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe this week—perhaps the most pivotal victory for young activists in years—should finally lay to rest the false notion that offended students have no real power on campus. The only question now is whether they will use their power for good.

Indeed, there are many inequities for them to tackle, even on the relative bastion of privilege that is the university campus: the cost of attaining a degree is spiraling out of reach for lower and middle-class students, too many resources are gobbled up by the sports industrial complex, racial inequalities still exist, and colleges continue to hire more and more administrators while the ranks and salaries of the faculty stagnate.

But if recent events at Mizzou, Yale University, and countless other campuses are any indication, students are headed in a decidedly less noble direction. Their primary concern is not improving the world, but empowering authority figures to protect them from it.

This shift—away from transgressive activism and toward a new regime of authoritarianism disguised as emotional protection—is already complete, and it’s as much a disaster for free expression on college campuses as it is an insult to the radicals of generations past who tossed off the shackles of in loco parentis. In their desperation to elevate college administrators to the status of parental figures, today’s leftists students don’t even realize how weirdly conservative they are.

The protests at the Columbia, Missouri, campus—which included an individual student’s hunger strike and an unprecedented football team boycott of future games—were born of purported administrative indifference toward racial animus on campus. Activists cited a few specific incidents—most notably, a random jerk in a truck shouting racial slurs at Mizzou’s black student body president and a swastika made of feces appearing on the wall of a residence building. It’s not clear a student was responsible for either incident. But Wolfe—who met with the students of color and expressed sympathy for their plight—was nevertheless branded as insufficiently motivated to take action.

Racist incidents are serious concerns, and the use of slurs ought to be stridently condemned. But no one has articulated a reasonable, legal solution to prevent random outbursts of racial intolerance. Mizzou is a public space that falls under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, and contrary to popular opinion, there is no hate speech exception in the First Amendment.

Note that this fact has not prevented the Mizzou police department from declaring an almost comically Orwellian crackdown on hate speech. On Tuesday, police sent an email to students instructing them to call the cops if they witness “hateful or hurtful speech.” Officers will be dispatched to investigate the accusations, and students are encouraged to record any identifying information about the speaker, such as a license plate number or physical description. Evidence will be handed over to university administrators to level disciplinary charges.

For one thing, policing hate speech—literally!—is a stupidly illiberal answer to Mizzou’s problems. For another, don’t the students so incensed by hate speech know that the police aren’t exactly known as paragons of racial sensitivity?

In the wake of the ouster, the activists quickly walled themselves off from the media, enlisting the help of other censorious members of campus—including, most regrettably, a professor with a courtesy appointment in the journalism department—to form a human shield around their safe space. These are not the actions of a movement that wants to better itself through engagement and critical feedback. These are the actions of a movement that is attempting to remove views either hostile or insufficiently supportive from campus.

The activist movement at Yale is even more desperately committed to the overthrow of free expression than at Mizzou, and its grievances are significantly less weighty. Rumors of a “whites only” fraternity party have been largely disproven, and a professor’s opinion that the university should refrain from telling students what Halloween costumes to wear isn’t merely inoffensive—it’s actually good advice.

And yet outraged students mobbed the intellectuals who refused to shield them from the terror of theoretical insensitivity. When Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis, whose wife had penned the infuriating email about Halloween costumes, defended free speech, students demanded both their resignations.

One student, Jencey Paz, wrote in The Yale Daily Herald that “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” She noted that her own father was a stubborn man who nevertheless didn’t try to debate her when what she really needed was a shoulder to cry on. Why can’t Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis do the same? she wondered.

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During a subsequent free speech event featuring Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff, a protester actually spit on an attendee. Lukianoff quipped, “You would think that given the reaction to what [Erika Christakis] had written that she had actually wiped out an Indian village.”

Protests ensued; a student then interrupted the event to accuse Lukianoff of making light of genocide. The demonstrations continued on Tuesday, as students held a “March of Resilience” in opposition to the supposed climate of racism on campus.

The inescapable conclusion is that the activists either want conformity more than they want anything else, or at least think the elimination of free speech is a necessary first step to achieving social equality. They also can no longer distinguish between physical threats to their safety, hurtful but clearly nonthreatening language, and wholly inoffensive exercises in free speech. What’s more, they want—nay, demand—that administrators rid them of all these kinds of expression and establish an institutionally maintained safe space across all of campus.

If administrators answered this call and began providing the kinds of emotional-coddling the students desire, where would it end? Before the 1960s, students had curfews. Women could not go to social events without chaperones. Broad restrictions were placed on political activity. These and other insulting restrictions on personal, sexual, and intellectual freedoms were always defended on grounds that they were in the best interest of students’ health and well-being.

They were necessary, in other words, because they kept students trapped in a safe space. Is this really what today’s activists want—to surrender the freedoms a previous generation of activists won for them?

This post has been updated.