Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Is #freespeechmatters the new #alllivesmatter?  (Daily Beast)

Trouble is brewing at America’s colleges and universities, and I'm not talking about shrinking enrollment, state legislators with budget axes, or recent student protests on campuses from Connecticut to California. I’m talking about something stealthier, and more sinister: A broad consensus of academics, school administrators, faculty, journalists, and political commentators using coded constitutional arguments to dismiss student protests and drown their legitimate grievances with academic debate.
It started back in August, during summer break, when a group of Black Lives Matter protesters took over a Bernie Sanders rally. Commentators of all political stripes, far left to far right, lambasted them, not on the merits, but with lectures about free political discourse. Next, in September, a white student at Wesleyan wrote an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. When students of color demanded sanctions against the paper, they were lectured again, this time on the importance of a free press.

In October, Yale tried to spare its students of color the daily racial indignities—n-words, feces Swastikas, “Kanye Western” parties—that students at the University of Missouri, UCLA, and other schools were experiencing. School administrators sent students an email urging them to make conscientious Halloween attire choices. In response, another lecture (albeit employing perfected gold-butter euphemism) from a resident teacher. She hit reply all, told students more censorship wasn’t the answer, and basically said lighten up and police such trivial things as costumes yourselves.

When Yalies protested and demanded her resignation, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic called the students “misguided.” Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine was more critical, likening students to Marxist Fascists who were hell-bent on crushing any and all opposing viewpoints. Ben Carson and Megyn Kelly had an hysterical exchange on Fox News. Columnists from USA Today to Washington Post piled on, decrying free speech on America’s college campuses in danger of imminent annihilation.

It should go without saying that students at Yale and anywhere else they protest are not trying to destroy free speech, a free press, or suppress the exchange of ideas. What they are trying to tell us is that they've had enough. They've had all of the n-words, feces Swastikas, blackface parties, George Zimmerman costumes, and school police officers profiling them and throwing them to the ground that they can take. Things that we might think are minor, like Halloween costumes, are not minor. They are a constant reminder that students of color are not safe anywhere on American soil—and perhaps especially not on their very own college campuses.

Yet when they ask us to take these concerns seriously and police such incidents to avoid their experience of further trauma, we hide in our cars. When they ask us to police mayor’s husbands in KKK costumes, we say police it yourselves. When they tell us they can't handle another school police officer throwing them to the ground, as at Brown, we call them petulant toddlers and liken them to lawless foreign mobs. 

Racism, like any pathology, must be policed. If there are no consequences for minor incidents, they escalate. Police in Chicago are presently murdering teenagers while City Hall helps them hide the video because they've learned they can upgrade all the way without consequence. When Bill Bratton and Rudy Giuliani employed this logic in the 1990s, we signed up to arrest and prosecute minorities at higher rates for 20 years. It was common sense. The ends of safe cities justified suspending Equal Protection. Today, however, when students tell us that the ends of safe campuses justify the aggressive policing of racism—whose end logic is genocide—the Constitution is transmogrified into an inviolable tablet of bedrock and used to pummel them.

Our students are letting us know they've been seeking protection in America's halls of democracy for the last 60 years. They are trying to tell us that our police, Supreme Court, Congress, and Justice Department aren’t getting the job done. Our schools are more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board, housing discrimination as rampant as it was prior to the Fair Housing Act, lynchings outsourced to police, security guards, and neighborhood watchmen, and oversight agencies refusing to do their jobs.

They are telling us if we love free speech, order, college football, and the many other things that make America great, we'll start owning these legitimate grievances. And if we don't, they're putting us on notice we don't belong on campus teaching them, in deans' offices advising them, in presidents' offices representing them, or on newspaper editorial boards writing for them. They are putting us on notice that they are willing to do what it takes to replace us with people who take protecting them seriously.  

When compelling interests collide, the Supreme Court has often held that there are exceptions to constitutional speech protections. Try exercising your 1st Amendment right to protest on the Court's front steps, for example, and you will quickly find yourself moved across the street or wearing steel bracelets in a transport wagon. This is because the safety of the Court’s clerks, lawyers and justices warrants exception. America's college students should be treated no differently. There is no more compelling interest than protecting students from ubiquitous racial trauma on campus.

Yelling #freespeechmatters!—or anything other than “you got it” in response to such demands for protection—and doubling down when it is brought to our attention that we’re dead wrong, is little more than a genteel academic version of showing up to Black Lives Matter rallies and drowning students out with chants of #alllivesmatter!

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