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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  • Malcolm Shields

    I don’t think it came from a place of malice, but I disagree with Erika on a few things. She spoke about how she thinks students should ignore hurtful costumes and take care of the issues amongst themselves but I don’t think that was gonna work.. I could easily see the discussion devolving into a “You’re too sensitive” vs “You’re racist” debate. To make matters worst, both sides feel like they’re victims. On one side, some students have flat out stated that they think Yale has some pretty big issues with race. On the other side, students feel like they think that they’re in a world where people are too sensitive and have this desire to run to the powers at be. I just think that it would end up with people getting angry, then walking away to their own groups of friends or online communities where their ideas just get reinforced. It becomes a major “us vs them” mentality. Also, telling one side to just ignore the other just reminds me of people saying to just ignore your bullies. People don’t like being told to ignore their feelings.

  • Skeet Duran

    Malkin’s got a fancy fresh term for the campus protestors, first it was attacked on PC, then referred to them as SJW, and now she’s calling them “Mob Rule”.

  • 1maybeso

    The term “Mob rule” is neither fancy nor fresh. It is fitting though. Malkin makes some excellent points. Thank you for the link.

  • 1maybeso

    I enjoy the phrase “cry bully.” I find it to be so apt. Tim Tai and Nicholas Christakis got to experience this first hand. People screaming don’t push as they simultaneously push you. People screaming shut up as interrupt you. People shouting insults as they complain about their feelings and demand apologies. People crying about their safe space as they ignore yours.

  • MelaninManson

    You know that you’re losing the war when you think Michelle Malkin makes excellent points.

  • Skeet Duran

    It’s an old political term typically used to describe the Democrats, I haven’t heard it used on activists as their favorite term SJW is reserved for that. I’d guess to them, activists and Democrats are one and the same.

  • 1maybeso

    I wasn’t aware that I was at war.

  • LOL, too true.

  • I think this is yet anoher excellent example of using free speech rhetoric to shut down speech. Notice that Malkin and her ilk have little to say about the substance of what protesters are saying, but is instead focused on ad hominem attack (calling them a “mob”, making fun of spelling). Malkin is demonstrably wrong in the areas where she does talk about the substance of the protests. The demands are neither “insatiable”, nor unrealistic, nor uncertain: I have linked both the Mizzou and Yale demands above. Both are focused on ethnic studies, culture centers and mental health. These are all departments, centers and resources that can be found well-funded in other schools. Yale protesters ask for a diversity requirement for students, which occurs as routine at other Ivy League schools.

    This is a great example of exactly what I’m talking about in this post. Who’s the bully here? Protesters marching on the quad, or a rich conservative media darling and owner of media outlets using her vast soapbox to make fun of their spelling?

  • Skeet Duran

    It’s your sports culture that causes fans from different teams to be obnoxious, insolent, and brash at one anothers, this freedom of rudeness behaviors transcended into social discourse and politics where the will to win is to-win-at-all-costs, disregarding dignity or integrity. It’s a culture of finger-pointing without looking at the mirror to self-evaluate, this trait is more commonly worse in the right though with Trump and Malkin leading the way.

  • Skeet Duran

    In this social political war, can’t wait for the day when Jenn rises up to challenge Michelle Malkin in a heated debate battle covering meaningful topics (immigration, employment, education).

  • pzed

    I like how you completely ignored Tim Tai and the protesters claiming a “safe space” in on public grounds. The sham of “safe spaces” was really well demonstrated there. Safe for who? Certainly not Asians. Who is the bully here? Also not Asians. The bullies are apparently whites and blacks. If they really wanted a safe space, then pick somewhere that’s not outdoors on public grounds. If you decide you need to have a public presence and camp outside to be seen, then accept that you are, in fact, in public and CAN BE SEEN. Crying about a violation of a safe space in that location is the height of hypocrisy.

    Really, I can’t believe you didn’t mention his name once in your article. You claim to be “the web’s foremost” blogger about Asian Americans, but don’t mention the one Asian person who’s name got blasted all around the nation during this episode for being bullied by BOTH blacks and whites. Amazing.

  • Skeet Duran

    Tim demonstrated being the big shot acting on behalf of right wing media privilege, but he was actually being used as a pawn by ESPN. Tim had no idea the ramifications and litigation liabilities that could toppled over him had he filmed people without their consents. Yes, Tim fundamentally had 1st Amendment right to be there, but his rights were limited to take pictures or film people without their permissions, even on public grounds. Most Youtubers need to get consents granted by having Release Forms signed whenever they film random people in public places. Human faces are not public domains even if they’re standing on public grounds, someone else’s face is the same as that person’s content and you need permission granted to publish someone else’s content.

    For network media giants like ESPN to film large gatherings they usually had consent prior to the filming process occurred.

    The term “Safe space” has a lot more meanings to it than Tim realized.

  • in case you haven’t put this together yet, I am writing a series of posts, touching on different aspects of the protests. The Tim Tai episode actually deals with something different than the topic of this post — safe spaces and the role of the press, or alternatively, conservative media’s predatory appropriation of the Tai story to play a very small-scale version of wedge politics — and did not fit well into this post. I planned writing a different post on it, but frankly it will be virtually identical to Arthur Chu’s “it is about ethics in journalism” piece published this week; I invite you to read that.

    Also, you should really self-examine the idea that you only felt entry into this issue with the public face of an Asian American. That suggests your politic is swayed more by kinship to celebrity than to a cohesive and thoughtful race politic. Tim Tai actively discouraged the press from picking up his story (he wrote that he didn’t want coverage or to become part of the story) and meanwhile you seem to ignore the hundreds of Asian American students who are writing and marching in these protests, but who aren’t making headlines.

    Our stake in this issue doesn’t only arrive because White conservatives suddenly grasped hold of a new wedge with which to politicize their racial attacks — against his will. Our stake is that a large number of our students are part of these marches or writing open letters of support from their own schools because they recognize that opposing racism means opposing racism in all its forms. If you don’t recognize that we are part of these marches, and not just the sole reporter who tried to cover it, it shows how far out of touch with the community you really are.

  • Right. Media has freedom of press, but still open themselves up to liability (particularly in civil courts) if they publish something explicitly against the permission of subjects. That’s why release forms are standard, or journalists hedge their bets and try to take photos that obscure identities if taking pictures of highly newsworthy events where permission can’t be granted; sometimes that’s not possible. But either way, reporters are expected to hold themselves to an ethical standard, out of respect for the impact of their power. Here, subjects made it clear that they were in essence off-the-record; the ethical journalist would respect this even if they may or may not have the legal right to take photos. There is basically difference between a photojournalist who takes photos of subjects against their explicit will, and the paparazzi. Legal? Maybe. Moral? Not really.

    Also, i should mention that I attended a Yale event to listen to Asian American students talk about their solidarity with the marches. It was also a space where press was limited. I announced that I had IG’d a photo (which I did before the announcement was made about limiting press) and then spent the rest of the night not recording the event. It’s not hard to be a member of the press who respects the right to privacy of subjects they plan to write about. Tai just chose not to do it; not his fault, these days, major news media are relying on paid but ultimate citizen journalists for their content creation. Those who are inexperienced haven’t yet had opportunity to deal with the tricky ethics of this profession. ESPN should not have basically led Tai to believe he needed to get s photo by any means necessary, rather than to allow that a more seasoned reporter would recognize the problem of shooting in this situation.

    And members of our community should recognize when an Asian face is being once again used to play wedge politics.

  • <3 <3 <3

  • bigWOWO

    If someone is creating a public disturbance or newsworthy event, they turn themselves into a pubic figure. You don’t need permission to take a photo or video and publish it, regardless of where it takes place. If the rules were as you say, Michael Brown’s mother could have sued the press for publishing pictures of Michael assaulting and robbing the store owner (on private property no less). After all, Michael never signed a waiver giving his permission to be filmed robbing and assaulting a store owner. The cop who shot Walter Scott could have done the same in his case. He never gave permission to be filmed shooting a man in the back. This is why Melissa Click apologized and is why Janna Basler should apologize fully (for blocking Tim Tai, along with violently shoving him). Tim Tai had every right to take those pictures. There is no ambiguity here.

    As for it being a public space, this issue arises because they had no right to block him. Think of it this way–if I want to go to a public park, you can’t get a bunch of your friends and block my way because it’s your “safe space.” As a member of the public, I have a right to enter that space, so as long as I’m following the law, you can’t legally stop me from going or calling in some “muscle” to stop me.

    Again, there is no ambiguity here.

  • bigWOWO

    As for the ethical issues, there’s also no ambiguity. A man lost his job after a hunger strike and a football team refused to play. I want to know the story. People want to know the story. People have a right to know what happened.

  • 1maybeso

    Asian Americans who disagree with Jenn or that do not fit her preferred narrative are dismissed as being pawns of wedge politics, or as being sick in the head with a desire for white privilege. Apparently you need to “self reflect” more.

  • Byron, please read Arthur’s post on ethical journalism. I know you don’t like to read backlinks, but he dismantles this argument effectively and I don’t really feel a need to repeat him.

    tl;dr – there’s a difference between a legal right and an ethical right, and journalists have for generations respected the consent doctrine for their subjects even if they have the legal right to publish anyways except in extreme circumstances, of which a tent city actually would not qualify for most newsrooms. I invite discourse AFTER you’ve read Arthur’s post, but feel no need to summarize it for you because you won’t read a link already provided to you.

  • MelaninManson

    Weak ad hominems are no substitute for cogent argument.

  • 1maybeso

    Pointing out a line of argument that a person has repeatedly used is not ad hominem.

  • Myra Esoteric

    Missouri has a strong and sordid history of racism against African Americans like any other former slave state. This is not really an Asian American topic except peripherally; the Tim Tai incident was not part of the main thrust of it.

    I admittedly don’t know enough yet. I believe that this issue mostly concerns black-white race relations that have to do specifically with the climate in that state. I also believe that the poop swastika and other incidents are merely the tip of the iceberg.

  • MelaninManson

    Except that is not what you are doing; no reasonable person could possibly conclude what you have above.