Raucous protests at the University of Missouri, Ithaca College and Yale have highlighted the tension between students who desire a tolerant campus and the American value of free speech.
Most of the discussion about these events in the media portrays a struggle between left-wing students and administrators trying to implement diversity and speech codes versus right-wing students and administrators trying to protect certain kinds of speech.
But political correctness is far from just a left-wing phenomenon, and there are many instances of right-wingers trying to silence speech on campus. Here are some of the ways that is done.
Republican State Lawmakers v. Academic Freedom
Missouri State Senator Kurt Schaefer is a Republican from Columbia, home of the Mizzou controversy. Schaefer chairs the state senate's Committee on the Sanctity of Life. As part of his duties he sent a letter late last month to the university claiming that a graduate student who is studying waiting periods for abortion is essentially a “marketing aid for Planned Parenthood.” He wants documentation on how the research was approved and he would like the university to end it.
The university is resisting. “Chancellor [R. Bowen] Loftin has and will continue to strongly support academic freedom and the intellectual property of MU’s students and faculty,” said university spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken.
This is hardly the first instance of GOP lawmakers trying to curtail school activities they politically disagree with. Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels sent a bizarre email weighing in on the college controversies and taking pride that there are no protests at the state's flagship school, Purdue University, which he leads today. But when he was governor, he tried to rid the state schools of the work of “anti-American” historian Howard Zinn. In other words, my political correctness is good, but yours is bad.
These individual instances are buttressed by a more systematic attack on academic freedom by lawmakers trying to control textbooks and history courses so they do not reflect the history of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression in their curricula. Arizona experienced an outright ban in 2013 on ethnic studies, with lawmakers simply stepping in and deciding teachers and parents could not decide for themselves what they should be teaching children.
Right-Wing Political Correctness Run Amok On College Campuses
The stereotype about colleges and universities is that they are bastions of left-wing thought and discourse. While it's true colleges have traditionally been one of the organizing points for progressives, that doesn't mean right-wing elites don't exercise their power at these institutions as well.
Vox's Max Fisher brought up one example from his alma mater, the college of William & Mary. In 2006, W&M president Gene Nichol decided to remove an 18-foot cross from an academic building. This set off a fiery controversy which resulted in, among other things, a major donor pulling their $12 million gift. In 2007, things escalated when Nichol refused to condemn a student group for bringing former sex workers to campus as part of a performance. State lawmakers joined the fracas, criticizing him for his performance and in 2008 he was fired by his board. Nichol rejected a cash bonus he was offered if he promised to say his firing had nothing to do with politics.
While this case was particularly dramatic, the circumstance of right-wing political pressure suppressing academic freedom and speech isn't rare. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) dutifully catalogs cases of suppression of speech. While many of these cases can be called left-wing political correctness, many come from the right as well.
In 2009, Boston College banned former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers from speaking on campus and refused to even let him address members of the campus via satellite, citing “security issues.” While Ayers is an academic of high repute, he had been demonized by the right during the 2008 election over a tenuous connection to Barack Obama.
Forsyth Technical Community College dismissed a professor for a 10-minute set of remarks criticizing the Iraq war. Hampton University denied recognition to a gay and lesbian student group and punished a group of students for handing out anti-Bush literature. Indiana University-South Bend punished a student reporter for interviewing a campus group about the play The Vagina Monologues, reversing itself only after FIRE got involved. Oakton Community College sent a cease-and-desist letter to a faculty member who sent a one-sentence email noting that May Day is a time when “workers across the world celebrate their struggle for union rights and remember the Haymarket riot in Chicago.”
There is one area in which universities have been notoriously tilted toward right-wing political correctness, though we rarely hear of it.
The Palestine Exception
The Center for Constitutional Rights recently published a thorough report, "The Palestine Exception To Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.,” which documents how colleges from coast to coast, under the guise of battling antisemitism or maintaining a peaceful campus, have sought to suppress activism dealing with Palestinian rights.
Between January 2014 and June 2015, the group Palestine Legal responded to 300 incidents of suppression on more than 65 college campuses. These incidents included college presidents breaking their neutrality on the topic—such as CUNY John Jay College's president Jeremy Travis suggesting that students doing a die-in to protest the Gaza war were invoking antisemitism—to trying to stop the activism altogether. A dean at one university tried to stop the formulation of a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization, saying it could be a “disruptive influence” on campus. In the spring of 2014, Barnard College banned students from hanging banners in its main hall, something the school had been allowing for decades, after complaints about an SJP banner featuring a map of historic Palestine reportedly made pro-Israel students feel uncomfortable.
One can imagine the reaction from conservatives if the shoe was on the other foot—if pro-Israel students had their student groups criticized by college presidents and their protest rights curtailed in the name of sensitivity and anxiety.
Watch the CCR video about the report:
Perhaps the highest-profile example of speech suppression was the termination of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Steve Salaita for his social media criticisms of Israel. This was a step the university may regret, as it was ordered this month to pay $875,000 in a settlement to Salaita and his legal team over the firing.
These are just a small sampling of the instances where colleges sought to crack down on speech they considered too left-wing for the campus environment. What the documentation overall seems to show is that it is not so much a matter of left and right as simply status quo; universities are small-c conservative institutions that don't want the boat rocked. Sometimes that benefits the status quo in favor of the left, but it often benefits the right as well.
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