The New Red Guards at Universities
Student campaigns to censure and punish professors.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
Seeming to give credence to Bertrand Russell’s observation that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts,” Michael Saunders, a member of the University of Washington Student Senate, introduced a resolution to create a system for students and staff to serve on an academic jury. The purpose of this jury, according to the resolution filed by Sanders, is to resolve “all discrimination accusations and charges that violate the University of Washington’s mission statement” so that the university is able to “think outside the lens of an oppressive system and think in a mindset of innovation, improvement, and radical change.”
As is clear from the tortured prose of the resolution, complete with its leftist catchphrases, this is another example of woke students trying to seize moral authority and use their newly found power to enforce a radical ideology on an entire campus. More disturbing is the actual ideology of the proposal which clearly is to promote a singular way of thinking to advance social justice, suppress dissent and opposing views, and “chill” the speech and opinions of faculty who dare to veer off the expected and acceptable way of thinking.
There are, of course, serious issues with the creation of such a tribunal to evaluate and punish faculty expression. For example, how would a faculty member know, in advance, what thoughts and ideas are acceptable and which ones are subject to censure? Who composes this list and whence do the authors derive the authority for creating such a code? Will the creation of a list of forbidden topics be drafted only by liberal students and faculty who feel that they have the moral authority to determine what can be said by whom on campuses now? Will any opposing, conservative views henceforth be tolerated?
Will the subjects questioned and debated by errant faculty—such as affirmative action, the Black Lives Matter movement, gay marriage, abortion, border and illegal immigration policy, gun control, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and other controversial topics—be limited to positions by liberal faculty who have predetermined views on these troubling topics? Does the creation of this jury mean that no opposing views on these or any other topics would be permitted, so that conservative speech and ideology would be effectively suppressed, subject to censure and punishment?
The fact that these students think that their personal ideology and views on controversial topics are established truths, rather than opinions, is troubling enough in itself, but will be made more dangerous and disturbing when they are codified in some type of a speech code which determines what can, and cannot, be said.
Since what will eventually happen is that a speech code will be created, these presumptuous students should remember that campus speech codes have been historically struck down by the courts as being unconstitutional infringements on First Amendment rights, in addition to violating the concept of academic freedom that most faculty enjoy on university campuses.
In its seminal 1940 statement on academic freedom, The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) affirmed this academic right and noted that when professors “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline,” although “they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances” and “they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others . . . .”
Absent any malice or illegal expression, a faculty member is normally free to address any topic he or she chooses, even on matters outside of one’s teaching discipline, so the notion that students will ferret out passages from articles and research to find out what a professor has written with which they disagree is both grotesque and contrary to the values of academic freedom and free speech on campus.
As is evident to observers of the current state of academia, students have been using this tactic of suppressing faculty speech they dislike for some time now, although it seems to have accelerated in recent times as students have realized that they can seize power without consequences or interference from feckless administrators.
As this academic year opened, for example, “anti-racist” Skidmore students presented 19 demands to the administration, including the predictable ones, such as “a zero-tolerance policy toward racism among faculty, staff, students and administrators” and “mandatory and reoccurring anti-racist training for all professors and students.” But perhaps most troubling on this list was the one very specific demand that called for two studio art professors, David Peterson, and Andrea Peterson, to be immediately fired. What was the grave offense that would have justified terminating someone’s academic career? The two professors, the triggered and indignant students revealed, “were seen protesting with Blue Lives Matter protestors, while Skidmore alumni and students were being teargassed and attacked on the other side of the street,” and this mere presence at the pro-police rally was clear evidence to these fragile students that the Petersons were “openly advocating and preaching exclusionary, racist, and fascist ideology.” [Emphasis added.]
In a November, eight McGill University student organizations not only outrageously critiqued the University’s stated policies on academic freedom, but also attacked Philip Salzman, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, demanding that he be stripped of his academic credentials and have his McGill connection erased. In their letter they suggested that if members of the McGill community are able to express their views without restraint—and without considering how this expression may negatively affect victim groups and individuals on the McGill campus—then academic freedom must be contained and restricted to avoid “harming” these alleged victims . . . .”
The letter specifically denounced Salzman’s writing because, the tendentious students wrote, he presented “opinions as if they are objective facts.” The students, of course, did the exact same thing by claiming that inclusivity, diversity, social justice, white supremacy, systemic racism, and Islamophobia, for instance—many of the terms that animate current progressive thought—are themselves absolute truths and not subject to vigorous debate, discussion, and critique, precisely what Professor Salzman’s articles do. And here the students reveal their primary, though flawed, view: that regardless of how legitimate Salzman’s viewpoints may be (a point which they do not, of course, even consider), the sensitivity and feelings of his purported victims is more important than the creation of knowledge and academic discourse.
Another unfortunate example of student attacks on professors’ academic freedom revealed itself when the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) of University of San Diego’s Law School proposed creating their own version of Orwell’s ThinkPol. In a six-page letter to USD law school faculty and students in the wake of the George Floyd death the BLSA included as one of its “calls to action” the troubling demand that the law school “develop a classroom diversity officer position tasked with observing classroom practices and reporting questionable conduct within the classroom to the administration.” [Emphasis added.]
It is certain, of course, that these monitors would have the effect of chilling speech and inhibiting the free exchange of ideas about the law, society, criminality, law enforcement, racism, and other likely topics in a law school classroom. And since the proposed monitors would report those individuals who commit racial thought crimes at USD, what Orwell called “unapproved thought,” how is someone to know in advance what speech and thought is permitted and which is not? College speech codes, which is what this proposal actually amounts to, have, as mentioned, been regularly struck down as unconstitutional for, among other reasons, being overly vague, broad, and highly subjective.
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, of course, but is vaguely fascistic by purposely or carelessly 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 characterized as the “tyranny of group self-righteousness.”
The problem is that intellectually arrogant, coddled students feel that they can determine who on campus has the right to have certain viewpoints and who does not. More seriously, not only do they believe that their ideological foes deserve to be denounced, but they further believe that the targets of their opprobrium—these alleged racists, white supremacists, conservatives and anyone else who expresses alternate views to the prevailing orthodoxy— should not even be allowed to remain on campus and that it is reasonable they be purged from their respective campuses.
This is “cancel culture” at its inevitable and grotesque endpoint, and that students have weaponized leftist ideology to suppress alternate views and eliminate any debate bodes poorly for the future of the academy.
The prescient and still-relevant 1975 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale discussed the danger of allowing some intellectually intolerant individuals on campus to degrade or demonize the expression of others with whom they disagree. “They assert a right to prevent free expression,” the report noted. “They rest upon the assumption that speech can be suppressed by anyone who deems it false or offensive,” echoing Herbert Marcuse’s notion of ‘repressive tolerance.’ “They deny what Justice Holmes termed ‘freedom for the thought that we hate.’ They make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all.”
And what is the ultimate threat for such suppression of free speech, of this unfortunate symptom of cancel culture, according to the report? “If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university.”
And when censorious students seek to silence opposing thought by banishing ideological foes from a campus, free speech is threatened and degraded for all.