The Race Exception to Academic Free Speech in the Era of Black Lives Matter

How colleges have become "islands of repression in a sea of freedom."

As if further evidence were needed to confirm that race—and talking about race—is still the third rail of social debate, one only has to look at the paroxysms of moral indignation arising from the death in Minneapolis last month of George Floyd under the knee of a brutal police officer. In the wake of country-wide protests and demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and the group’s supporters, the discussion has, of course, come to campuses, those “islands of repression in a sea of freedom” where coddled, virtue-signaling students regularly take it upon themselves to purge their schools of dissenting thought—that is, any views not in lockstep with their progressive ideas of the power and sanctity of identity politics.

More importantly, the notion that a vocal minority of self-important student ideologues can determine what views may or may not be expressed on a particular campus is not only antithetical to the purpose of a university, but is vaguely fascistic by relinquishing power to a few to decide what can be said and what speech is allowed and what must be suppressed; it is what former Yale University president Bartlett Giamatti once characterized as the “tyranny of group self-righteousness.”

The belief that students are able to purge unpopular views from their campuses if they wish has, of course, been festering for some years now, long before George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. In a particularly regrettable case in 2017, as one example, a controversy embroiled evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, a self-described liberal, white professor at Evergreen State College who was vilified by students when he refused to stay off campus on the School’s Day of Absence, an annual event where traditionally Evergreen’s black people were urged not to come to campus as a way to demonstrate their importance to the College’s community. In 2017, however, the tradition was changed and white people were asked not to come to campus for the Day of Absence. That did not seem just to Weinstein, who suggested that

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles ... and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in itself.

In response to what was perceived to be his astounding audacity in questioning what had that year become black students’ opportunity to banish whites from campus in order to promote their self-determination, Weinstein was denounced for his “anti-blackness,” faced calls for his dismissal, and even confronted threats to do him physical harm, as student thugs, armed with clubs and baseball bats, roamed the campus looking for Weinstein and other administrators who prostrated themselves before the social justice warrior hordes who virtually took over the entire campus and, as a reward for their criminal behavior, wrestled a bundle of concessions from the feckless administration. Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, also a professor at Evergreen, eventually felt it necessary to resign and ultimately received $500,000 to settle a lawsuit they filed against the School as a result of the controversy.

To see how activist campus students have very recently attacked their professors when those professors have articulated what students believe are racist or unacceptable views of the Black Lives Matter movement, one has only to look at the three recent cases of Gordon Klein, a lecturer in accounting at UCLA; Harald Uhlig, professor at University of Chicago and lead editor of the Journal of Political Economy; and William Jacobson, Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell—all of whom found themselves vilified on campus, not only by a cadre of student race hustlers and activists, but by fellow faculty and administrations that were slow to defend their right to express themselves — even when, as in these cases, their ideas were certainly within the realm of reasonable conversation about the still-controversial topics of Black Lives Matter, race, and racial justice.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, UCLA’s Professor Gordon Klein  received an e-mail from a student, which requested, on behalf of a number of black students, a "no-harm" final exam that could only benefit students' grades, and for modified exams and more lenient deadlines for final assignments. UCLA’s own regulations prohibit a professor from changing exam schedules, so Klein politely declined the request, but also added some sarcastic responses to the email, including an apt, although ultimately controversial, observation: “Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the "color of their skin." Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK's admonition?” For sending the email, Klein was placed on involuntary administrative leave and students called on the University to fire him, even though he had not violated any academic guidelines and the language of his response, while possibly ill-conceived, was certainly protected academic free speech.

University of Chicago economics professor Harald Uhlig similarly found himself embroiled in controversy when he reasonably suggested on his Twitter feed that Black Lives Matter “torpedoed itself with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice.” Uhlig is also editor of the Journal of Political Economy, and after he was accused of “trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement” with his tweet, fellow academics also attempted to strip him of his editorship, contending that Uhlig's comments “hurt and marginalize people of color and their allies in the economics profession.”  Ironically, the University of Chicago, it will be remembered, was the institution that issued the 2014 “Chicago Statement” on the importance of academic free speech. “In a word,” the Statement read,

the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

Cornell’s William Jacobson found himself the target of attacks from activists on campus after he posted criticism of Black Lives Matter’s mission and behavior on his blog, Legal Insurrection. “Concern for black lives, and all lives, is important,” Jacobson wrote. “But that is not the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement, they seek to tear down our society to achieve their Marxist goals, and it takes a huge deception to get people to go along.” Moreover, he wrote, “The Black Lives Matter movement . . . [has] concocted a false narrative of mass murder of Blacks at the hands of police, when the statistics show otherwise. They will exploit George Floyd’s death mercilessly to drive that agenda.”

At a time when white people were getting on the knees and apologetically kissing the feet of black people, this commentary did not sit well with the Cornell community, and particularly the Cornell Black Law Students Association (BLSA), which accused Jacobson of choosing “to weaponize these tragic losses (of black lives at the hands of police) at the expense of students of color.” After urging other students to avoid taking classes from Jacobson in the future, BLSA further called on Cornell administrators to “critically examine the views of the individuals they intend to employ" indicating quite clearly that progressive students are not the least bit embarrassed by announcing they would prefer that faculty have to take an ideological litmus test before being hired, insuring that only professors with the identical world view of activist students and the majority of the professoriate would ever be hired. 

For his part, Jacobson was understandably defiant and defended his views. “Open debate,” he wrote about the controversy, “having your views challenged in an environment that allows a give-and-take, and taking courses from professors with whom you might disagree politically, apparently is the latest thought crime.”  

And that seems to be the lesson in each of these three cases: none of the professors expressed views that were actually bigoted, racist, or biased. In fact, their opinions about Black Lives Matter and the organization’s tactics and ideology were demonstrably true, regardless if some students who read these views found them to be tantamount to so-called “hate speech” that refused to “acknowledge the tangible harm caused by structural racism and oppression,” as the BLSA put it.

But the reality is that Black Lives Matter has a checkered past animated by vituperative, murderous rhetoric and questionable and, often, illegal tactics. At a 2014 BLM rally in New York City, marchers screamed, “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now.” And, at a 2015 demonstration, protesters chanted to police, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” That same year, a  group of some 150 BLM protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter” pushed their way into Dartmouth University’s library, screaming, “Fuck you, you filthy white fucks!,” “Fuck you and your comfort!,” and “Fuck you, you racist shit!”

And typical of the intersectionality of oppression to which campus victim groups regularly point, BLM’s 2016 platform included language that libeled Israel by attempting to link its perceived oppression of the Palestinians with America’s treatment of blacks. “U.S. and Israeli officials and media criminalize our existence, portray violence against us as ‘isolated incidents,’ and call our resistance ‘illegitimate’ or ‘terrorism,’” the language read. “These narratives ignore decades and centuries of anti-Palestinian and anti-Black violence that have always been at the core of Israel and the U.S..”

In their well-intentioned but futile quest to create campuses on which there is no trace of racism, some students, tendentious ideological brats, regularly try to suppress, denounce, or eliminate completely the views of those who do not accept the liberal orthodoxies so prevalent in academia today. These censorious students may think they are being virtuous and wise in trying to make universities places free of intellectual discord and acrimony, but they are missing the point about what universities should be: places where they are taught how to think and not what to think. And that process begins when robust debate about troubling topics takes place and is encouraged.

True intellectual diversity — the ideal that is often bandied about but rarely achieved — must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. Universities must, if they truly believe that academic free speech helps achieve “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth,” as John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, insure that rights to expression are not trampled on by those whose ideology is so strident and inflexible that they are unable, and unwilling, to, “exchange error for truth.”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

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