One of the most dangerous trends in America today is occurring on college campuses. These are the places I grew up viewing as laboratories for free speech, youthful energy and resistance to the status quo.
Unfortunately, what they’re turning into are anti-intellectual wastelands in which America’s supposedly “best and brightest” are being transformed into unthinking, mentally shackled, emotionally stunted automatons. The only thing being produced on college campuses these days seem to be frightened, thoughtless worker-bees, conditioned to shut-up and instinctively worship authority. Rather than teaching kids to think critically, administrators have created an environment where kids aren’t encouraged to think at all.
For those of you who may have missed it, I’ve covered this topic before. See:
Moving along, today’s piece relates to a recent incident on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus. A fraternity-sorority party was held under the theme “Kanye Western,” in which partygoers wore costumes parodying Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian. Naturally, this was simply too much to handle for a vocal group of censorship-inclined students. As such, the accusations began to fly that the greek students wore blackface, and school administrators immediately moved to suspend the social activities of the fraternity and sorority before completing an investigation.
Interestingly enough, in the days that followed, it became clear that the students weren’t actually wearing blackface at all (not that it would have mattered from a free speech perspective). Conor Friedersdorf did an incredible job for making the case for free speech in his excellent Atlantic article. Here are a few excerpts:
A half-century ago, student activists at the University of California clashed with administrators during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a series of events that would greatly expand free-speech rights of people at public colleges and universities.
Today, activists at UCLA are demanding that administrators punish some of their fellow students for expressive behavior that is clearly protected by the First Amendment.
What did UCLA students find so outrageous as to warrant the violation of the fundamental right to free expression? A “Kanye Western” theme party where students wore costumes that parodied rap superstar Kanye West and his celebrity wife, Kim Kardashian. For this, UC student activists would squander their inheritance.
Perhaps 18-to-22-year-olds can be forgiven for failing to appreciate what’s at stake in their activism. But UCLA administrators cannot be forgiven for complying with student demands to punish this free expression—a glaring illustration of their low-regard for the First Amendment, California law, and liberal ideals.
This is precisely the point. Young kids going to college are precisely that: Young kids going to college. Administrators are the ones who are supposed to be responsible for protecting free speech and upholding the U.S. Constitution within their spheres of influence, not pandering to hypersensitive students accustomed to always getting their way by merely shouting “racist” at whoever they happen to disagree with that week. Where are the adults in the room?
Meanwhile, critics of the critics insist that West is a famous celebrity, not a stand-in for black culture; that stuffed butts were a reference to Kim Kardashian, who is white and of Armenian descent, not black; that there is nothing wrong with appropriating the dress of hip-hop culture, which is not the same as black culture; that it’s myopic for privileged student activists to focus on a frat theme party while living in a city plagued by police killings, homelessness, housing discrimination, and other injustices; that activists are giving Greek organizations too much power to set their agenda; and that college kids these days are oversensitive to the point of self-parody.
It is salutary for collegians to contest such matters in the student newspaper, on campus, and on social media. Evidently, public discourse has changed some minds. Said the frat, “we sincerely apologize for the offense and hurt we caused to our fellow Bruins, especially those in the African American community … We are grateful for the dialogue we have had so far, and we intend to continue communicating with our fellow Bruins about how SigEp and Alpha Phi can make this a learning opportunity.”
What’s unhealthy is the movement to suppress free speech at UCLA.
This is another key point, and the issue that presents the greatest danger. By coddling students from opinions they may find offensive or hurtful, you are doing them a tremendous disservice. It would be far better to allow the student body to engage in debate and rational argument about such topics. This will teach kids to become critical thinkers and strong advocates for causes they believe in. Creating a sterile environment in which various opinions aren’t given the freedom to be expressed does an incalculable harm to these students, and fails to prepare them in any way for the real world.
University administrators bear the most culpability. After hearing objections to the theme party, but before finishing an investigation into it, UCLA officials suspended the social activities of the fraternity and sorority, effectively punishing them without due process even as these same officials publicly acknowledged that they didn’t have all the facts. Moreover, university officials are abusing their authority merely by investigating protected speech in the first place. And the student newspaper is cheering them on, demanding in an editorial that the office of UCLA Fraternity and Sorority Relations take a more active role in preemptively clearing all party themes.
Think about what sort of example this teaches the student body about due process and the rule of law. This is a total disaster and administrators should be fired for this.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, one of America’s foremost First Amendment scholars, has published several Washington Post items explaining why these reactions are legally dubious. “The suspension of the fraternity and sorority is likely unconstitutional,” he wrote. “Costumes that convey a message are treated as speech for First Amendment purposes (see, e.g., Schacht v. United States (1970)and Cohen v. California (1971)). And a university may not punish speech based on its allegedly racist content; see, e.g., Rosenberger v. Rector (1995), which holds that a university may not discriminate against student speech based on its viewpoint.”
He adds that “interim speech restrictions imposed before a full investigation and adjudication have historically been seen as more constitutionally suspect (as so-called ‘prior restraints’), see, e.g., Vance v. Universal Amusement, Inc. (1980); and the prior restraint doctrine is applicable to restrictions imposed by universities, see Healy v. James (1972). But in any event, even setting aside the prior restraint doctrine, suspending an organization’s social activities because of the offensive message conveyed by the organization’s past speech violates the First Amendment.”
In a followup post, he notes that the Supreme Court has unanimously held that student organizations have the right to express “the thought that we hate,” a far more offensive message than anything conveyed by the Greek organizations at UCLA.
Students who value fundamental human rights, protecting unpopular activism, or safeguarding the political liberties of the least powerful among us ought to be lobbying for the most stringent free-speech protections possible, not undermining core human rights that have benefitted generations of marginalized people as a salve for outrage at a frat party. As the ACLU once explained in answer to the question of why it sometimes mounts defenses of speech that is racist or promotes intolerance.
Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice. For example, in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. Chicago, the ACLU successfully defended an ex-Catholic priest who had delivered a racist and anti-semitic speech. The precedent set in that case became the basis for the ACLU’s successful defense of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and ’70s.
The college students fighting to limit free speech or to punish free expression are courting tremendous harms that would ultimately fall disproportionately on the least powerful, most marginalized groups of the present and future––and as UCLA graduates, they are highly unlikely to be in either group, which may help explain their lack of concern for how their behavior could affect the less privileged. It is nevertheless incoherent for activists who say that they live in a system of white supremacy to empower state administrators to police speech at their discretion!
But there is no “black point of view,” a prejudicial notion that is so easily refuted that it’s a wonder anyone invokes it. There are plenty of black people––a majority, I would wager––who understand better than many other Americans the importance of the First Amendment to the history of the civil-rights movement and the future of other civil-rights causes. As if to underscore that point, the Los Angeles Times highlighted an open letter sent to UCLA by Michael Meyers, president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. He said that “as an African American civil rights leader” he had to speak out. “We are increasingly alarmed—and distressed—by the failure of public university officials to support free speech and diversity of opinion on campus,” he wrote in the letter to UCLA’s chancellor. “Diversity of opinion surely includes the right of students to contest orthodoxy and to poke fun at popular culture and celebrities.”That is exactly right, and UCLA administrators should publicly apologize for acting to the contrary rather than caving to the illegal demands of student activists.
In case you missed it above, Connor brought up another key observation in this whole preposterous charade. He notes:
“It is nevertheless incoherent for activists who say that they live in a system of white supremacy to empower state administrators to police speech at their discretion!
Indeed, I didn’t think I was the one to see the absurdity in the fact that students at UCLA who portray themselves as some sort of victim, are the same ones who wield such tremendous power at the university. So much so, that administrators suspended due process and violated free speech rights merely to massage their thin skins and empower their self-rightious behavior.
How about the fact that it was America, a country with a sordid history of slavey and virtually no limits on free speech, which elected a black man President. Twice. Similarly, why is anti-Semitism so much more entrenched in parts of Europe than in the United States, despite all the “hate speech” laws across the pond. I’ll tell you why, because free speech works and censorship doesn’t.
The real victims in the saga are clear. The suspended fraternity and sorority, free speech, logic, and of course the UCLA student body as a whole.
For related articles, see:
For those of you in the UK, this is a must: ‘Stepford Student’ Culture Threatening Free Speech