7 Real Threats to Free Speech on College Campuses

The pervasive effort to paint college students as both pitiful snowflakes and violent terrorists ignores the very real threats to free speech on campus.

Photo Credit: CampusLATELY

The speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida is dredging up all the usual talking points, painting students as somehow both pitiful snowflakes and violent terrorists. Coming from figures as diverse as Bill Maher and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, this contradictory narrative at once demonizes student protesters and drowns out a growing number of very real threats to student free speech. Here’s a sample.

1. Guns in the Classroom

The increasing presence of guns on campus naturally has a stultifying effect on classroom discussions. Teachers are already wearing protective armor to class because their students are allowed to carry concealed weapons, and are afraid for their safety in class and on campus in general. Is anyone likely to engage in a heated debate when there’s a legitimate chance a tense argument could end in gunfire?

2. Making it Legal to Run Over Protesters

At least six states have proposed bills designed to protect drivers who strike protesters. Additional states have passed legislation aimed at discouraging protests, especially those of the left-leaning variety, including Black Lives Matter demonstrations or the effort to block the Dakota Access Pipelines.

If people are willing to accept running over protesters on city roads, it isn’t hard to see how campuses might be next. The fact that this idea is even being considered, let alone in six states, shows how far some are willing to go to discourage protests.

3. Making it Illegal to Even Talk About Certain Topics

There are some subjects that may soon be illegal for students to even discuss, let alone protest. As  Glenn Greenwald writes, some 43 senators – 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats – are backing a law that would make it a felony for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel, launched to protest the now decade-long occupation of Palestine.. Greenwald stresses that the bill’s proposed punishments are its most shocking aspect, including a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.  Individuals, including students, writes Greenwald could face “civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.”

This law isn’t an aberration, by the way. Punishment of  students who criticize Israel is now so common that the Center for Constitutional Rights refers to it as ‘the Palestine Exception’ to free speech.

This notion that criticism of Israel cannot be tolerated has already had an impact on teachers and students. A tenured professor at the University of Illinois was fired  by the school’s Board of Trustees for criticizing Israel on social media.  Meanwhile, last year on the Berkeley campus, David Horowitz’ Freedom Center put up posters accusing, by name several students and faculty members for  being connected to a “terror organization” because of their involvement in Students for Justice in Palestine, which the poster labeled, “the chief sponsor of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities on campus.”

4. Banning Courses that Conservatives Don’t Like

Some state legislatures have gone so far as to try to ban certain courses at colleges. Legislators in Michigan threatened to cut off funds from Michigan State if it didn’t stop offering courses that “allegedly promote unionization.” Or how about the time that then Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels tried to ban the teaching of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States at Indiana University? These efforts by conservative politicians to quash courses and materials on topics they don’t like echoes a similar effort to ban ethnic studies for K-12 students in Arizona, a ban that a federal judge recently ruled to be racist.

5. Social Media Crackdown

Social media is another area where free speech is regularly threatened. When George Ciccariello-Maher, a Drexel University associate professor of politics and global studies, tweeted in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting about “a sense of double entitlement – as white people and as men – that, when frustrated, can occasionally lead to violent consequences,” his comments set off a firestorm, despite being backed by decades of research. But that didn’t stop conservative sites like the Daily Caller, Breitbart News, FrontPage, the Blaze, the College Fix, Infowars, and more from misrepresenting his tweets. Ciccariello-Maher received numerous death threats, one of which read, “I will beat your skull in till there is no tomorrow.” Even Fox News spread the lie that not only was Ciccariello-Maher blaming Trump directly for the shooting, but also, bizarrely, the victims themselves.

This is far from the only instance where professors have been targeted because of comments on social media. He cites numerous cases, including Johnny Eric Williams from Trinity College, who was “targeted and suspended [for] reposting someone else’s words on Facebook.”

As for Ciccariello-Maher, Drexel placed him on administrative leave. “By bowing to pressure from racist internet trolls, Drexel has sent the wrong signal: That you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence,” says Ciccariello-Maher.

6. The Professor Watchlist AKA 21st McCarthyism

This next example of a real threat is particularly disturbing: Turning Point USA’s (TPUSA) Professor Watchlist. On its homepage, TPUSA explains that they, “will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” The implication, of course, is everyone on this list is guilty of advancing a “radical agenda.”

So who are these guilty teachers? Well, there’s Ann Blankenship-Knox, “who recently revealed the techniques she uses to push a social agenda and ‘decenter whiteness’ in the classroom.” It gets worse – “She also pledges to ‘decenter whiteness’ in her classes by prioritizing ‘first person narratives of people of color, and documentaries that challenge the narratives presented in Mississippi history books.’” Then there’s Amy Robertson, “the co-author of Unveiling Privilege to Broaden Participation, a study about male dominance in the field of physics. This study states that “white male privilege pervades the discipline of physics as well as the classrooms in which physics is taught and learned.” as well as stating that ‘Physics strongly values male-socialized traits such as independence, competition, and individual victories.’ Overall their goal is to ‘disrupt privilege’ by dismissing these traits saying we need to be willing to open up the space of what counts as physics.” Finally, there is Aswini Tambe, who tweeted, “#YesAllWomen We need to add men control to our call for gun control. It’s men with guns who kill people. Overwhelmingly. Recast masculinity!” Shocking.

7. Student Protest Itself

Perhaps the most serious threat to freedom of speech on college campuses is the concerted effort to demonize protest itself, as if the only reason students would protest is because they can’t bear to hear alternative “arguments.” And when we focus on and attack protestors themselves, we never confront the very ideas that were being protested in the first place, while those who want to spew hatred without anyone daring to question them are champions of free speech. You might remember one of these noble champions, Richard Spencer, as one of the men chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville, where one of these “very fine people” murdered a student protestor.

In the end, whether students and teachers are protesting silently or with a megaphone, whether they’re fighting for the right to speak on social media or about sensitive subjects without going to prison, or whether they’re fighting to learn about history outside narrow nationalist confines without the fear of being shot, it’s important to remember one simple truth.

Protests aren’t a threat to free speech. They are free speech.

Matthew James Seidel is a teacher and writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas. His writing on literature has appeared on The Millions. He reviews books on history, philosophy and science on his blog, Working Title Books. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewJSeidel.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World