This Is Not About Free Speech

November 9 March of Resilience at Yale. (Photo credit: Philipp Arndt Photography)
November 9 March of Resilience at Yale. (Photo credit: Philipp Arndt Photography)

The protests that have embroiled university campuses across this country over the past week are as much about free speech rights as GamerGate was about ethics in gaming journalism.

This is to say that although we would probably find value and relevancy in a debate about political restrictions that might exist to limit free speech in classrooms of higher education, what we’re seeing take place right now at Yale, University of Missouri, Ithaca College, and Claremont McKenna has very little to do with it. The protests taking place at these and other colleges and universities have almost nothing to do with attacks on free speech.

That, of course, has not stopped the predictable conservative lamentations over the “political correctness police”, and the usual patronizing excoriation of our nation’s youth. Look, they cry out in righteous outrage, the liberals are now trying to restrict our children’s Halloween costumes! Don’t we have the right to be as racist or as racially insensitive as we want to be anymore, they ask with wringing hands, behind closed doors, or (if they are Yale professor, Erika Christakis) in unsolicited mass emails.

Here’s the rub: Yale never actually restricted anyone’s free speech. The original email sent from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) that Erika Christakis prejudicially labeled as “censure” and “prohibition” was actually no such thing. In fact, it contained little more than a suggestion that students be more thoughtful about their choice in Halloween costume this year. The substance of the email is as follows:

So, if you are planning to dress-up for Halloween, or will be attending any social gatherings planned for the weekend, please ask yourself these questions before deciding upon your costume choice:

Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures

Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?

Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?

Wearing a ‘religious’ costume? Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?

Could someone take offense with your costume and why?

The University did not ban or restrict Halloween costume choices. There were no roving gangs of campus police and residence hall assistants assigned to patrol the Yale campus over Halloween weekend, setting up Halloween costume checkpoints at traffic intersections. The University’s suggestion that students simply apply a little more consideration to their Halloween costume choices – with specific attention to the fact that the campus is home to students from diverse backgrounds – is not censorship; it is a request that students exercise their right to free expression with greater deliberateness. This request is entirely consistent with the duty of University leadership, which is to urge students to think about why they are doing something before they do it. Such a recommendation fosters exactly the kind of learned rationality we expect our students to develop at these schools over the course of eight semesters (or more) of advanced education.

When words are ascribed weight and reverence, as is necessary in any space dedicated to the discovery of truth through reasoned discourse, participants must exercise their free speech rights with personal wisdom, respect and responsibility. It is only through this practice that we may honour the immense power of personal expression. It is only when all participants respect the sanctity of an academic space and its participants by exercising responsible free speech that meaningful discourse may be achieved.

Ironically, however, it is self-proclaimed “free speech advocates” (who, it turns out, are anything but) who most gravely trivialize and dishonour the spirit of the First Amendment. No one denies that all speech should be permitted. But too often, speech is not used by these so-called “advocates” to create discourse, but to silence it. Personal expression is not used to discover truth, but to reject and obscure it. When shit-flinging is celebrated as meritorious speech, everything becomes covered in a drying crust of tossed feces that drives all reasonable people who don’t want to be covered in crap out of the room.

The principled free speech advocates should find it alarming that, according to Erika Christakis, some students found Yale’s IAC email suggesting students to honour and reflect upon the weight of their free speech rights to be censorship; but these “advocates” do not. The principled free speech advocates should, in turn, find Erika Christakis’ email even more distressing; but, here too, these “advocates” do not. That’s because these “free speech advocates” aren’t actually driven by an urge to protect the First Amendment rights of others.

Christakis claimed to want freer speech over Halloween costumes. Yet, she argued that one should dismiss or ignore – not respectfully consider — those who might express a reasonable critique of racially offensive or culturally appropriative behavior. She couched her email in a call for better discourse over Halloween costumes, while she simultaneously undermined her own proposal by invalidating any opinion alternate to her own and by infantilizing those who might express it.

Self-proclaimed “free speech advocates” have suggested that student protesters are the ones attacking free speech. Yet, most Yale protesters have not argued against Erika Christakis’ right to express her condescending viewpoints. They lack neither the institutional power nor the collective interest to silence her outright. Instead, students have focused their demonstrations on presenting the why of Christakis’ flawed reasoning and the how of its damaging impact for many of Yale’s students.

Yale students have called for the removal of Erika and Nicholas Christakis from their roles as Associate Master and Master of Silliman College respectively, but they have not requested their firing from their faculty positions. This distinction is important: students clearly respect the duty of faculty in advancing intellectual discourse by sometimes offering controversial opinions. However, this is distinct from the duties of a College Master, who is empowered to care for the mental, physical and emotional safety and well-being of a college’s student residents. They live on campus to ensure that each of Yale’s colleges is a home to all their student residents, and to serve as an immediate and accessible resource for students in emotional or physical distress. A College Master (or Associate Master) who publicly invalidates the experiences of students of colour – experiences that often contribute to alienation and anxiety and that may compromise students’ emotional and psychological health – sends the message that she is not receptive to the issues faced by the students of colour under her care. In so doing, Christakis and her husband demonstrate their failure to support and advocate for all of the student residents of Silliman College. To call for the Christakis’ resignation as Master and Associate Master is not a matter of free speech; it is a matter of job qualification.

It is also worth noting that Yale’s student protesters aren’t particularly focused on the Christakis’, anyways. The demands that top their petition to Yale administrators involve greater resources for ethnic studies, student cultural and community centers, and mental health resources; these are similar to the demands issued by students at University of Missouri and have been the subject of intense student advocacy for years.

Yet, I cannot deny that people are being silenced in the past week’s nation-wide university protests; but, those being silenced are not Erika Christakis, or her supporters. Those whose free speech rights are being threatened right now are the student activists currently speaking out about their daily experiences with their campus’ institutional racism. At the University of Missouri, student activists reported death threats issued over social media that caused a campus evacuation and resulted in at least two arrests; the campus’ Black cultural center was also targeted with threatening phone calls. At Yale, a racist phone call was also placed to the school’s African American Studies Department resulting in increased campus police presence. Howard University also received a racist death threat posted to social media that was motivated by protests at University of Missouri. These are acts of terrorism designed to intimidate Black students into silence.

Meanwhile, conservative media has resorted to unseemly tactics, also apparently with the goal of intimidating Black college students and other students of colour. Mainstream outlets have engaged in gross and biased mischaracterization of campus events aimed at making a public mockery of student protesters. Some mainstream outlets have also engaged in unethical publication of the personal and private details of students and their families. One conservative pundit and law professor has suggested (apparently in total seriousness) that the voting age be raised to 25 to deny all young people access to the polls in the wake of student protests.

“People who can’t discuss Halloween costumes rationally don’t deserve to play a role in running a great nation,” says this writer as he defends disenfranchising our nation’s youth as punishment for speaking out.

Students who have done nothing more than exercise their First Amendment rights in impassioned – but ultimately non-violent – demonstrations are being insulted by grown adults as “cry bullies”, as if to speak out about one’s personal experiences with racism is to “cry” or “whine”; as if to organize expression of that racism is to “bully”; and, as if it is faculty and deans who are the victims here, not the students who have been told for decades to quietly endure unspeakable racism.

The principled free speech advocate should be moved by the powerful examples of young people exercising their First Amendment Rights we’ve witnessed this past week, regardless of whether they agree with the contents of those demonstrations, to fight to defend their right to self-expression without intimidation, excessive scorn, and threats of violence. The principled free speech advocate should see our student protesters as patriots, courageously exercising their First Amendment rights as part of a long storied tradition of activists who have created change by doing the same. But, our self-proclaimed “free speech advocates” take the opposite position.

The reason for this double standard is simple: they aren’t really principled free speech advocates, and this isn’t about free speech at all.

This is the creation of a manufactured controversy over free speech rights to derail our growing national conversation on anti-Blackness and other forms of institutionalized racism. This is the selective defense by self-proclaimed “free speech advocates” of only speech that they deem to be legitimate, while they resort to increasingly unethical tactics of intimidation and fear to undermine the speech they deem to be illegitimate.

This is about the weaponization of free speech rhetoric to attack the free expression of uncomfortable speech.

Don’t be fooled. This is not about free speech. This has never been about free speech. This is about White privilege, and those who either have it or covet it invoking an absurd fantasy over political correctness and faltering free speech rights to show just how far they will go to deny the existence of institutional racism, to delegitimize documented patterns of racist incidents occurring at universities across the country, to distract from the pursuit of racial justice, and to demean the young, bright student-activists who would dare to seek it.

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