I have previously criticized Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro for his lack of support for free speech on campus. Unlike the University of Chicago across town, Schapiro has been leading the calls for limiting speech deemed to be a “microaggression” or offensive. (For full disclosure, I am a graduate of both Northwestern and Chicago). His lack of commitment to free speech has made him popular with some groups while alarming free speech advocates. That concern was heightened this week when Schapiro defended his efforts to give protected “safe spaces” on campus and said that some offensive speech should be considered a form of “assault.” The comments further distinguish Schapiro was one of the most hostile university presidents toward free speech principles in the country. His pandering to those demanding speech codes and regulations should be an embarrassment for the university, which remains one of the world’s premiere academic institutions. He has taught his students well. Soon after the publication of his latest remarks, student groups shutdown a speaker and a class on immigration. It appears that even classes must now adhere to the mob rule at Northwestern.
In his speech, Schapiro repeated his mantra that the First Amendment “isn’t absolute” and dismissed free speech advocates as reducing “it to slogans or free speech at all costs.” It appears that we should listen to Schapiro who views free speech as little more than a speed bump on the path to speech regulation. Schapiro’s view of free speech is truly chilling. He notes that “if you shut down freedom of speech, you better have a really good reason. … I think if you shut down anything, you better be really sure that you have a moral and legal justification to do it. That’s my view.” Really? You have to have a moral and legal justification? So free speech can be limited out of concern that it endangers moral values? People have long argued for barring and even burning books as compelled by moral concerns. As for legal justification, the first amendment protects against government censors and regulation. That means that figures like Schapiro have ample legal room to at a private institution to curtail free speech in the name of moral and racial justice.
Schapiro’s students have learned his relativistic view of free speech well — as demonstrated in a class on campus. The incident vividly showed not only how free speech has been curtailed at Northwestern but so has academic freedom. Ironically, the focus was a Sociology 201 class by Professor Beth Redbird that examines “inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class and gender.” To that end, Redbird invited both an undocumented person and a spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is the type of balance that it now considered verboten on campuses.
Members of MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color and Rainbow Alliance organized to stop other students from hearing from the ICE representative. However, they could not have succeeded without the help of Northwestern administrators (including Dean of Students Todd Adams). The protesters were screaming “F**k ICE” outside of the hall. Adams and the other administrators then said that the protesters screaming profanities would be allowed into the class if they promised not to disrupt the class. Really? They were screaming profanities and seeking to stop the class but would just sit nicely as the speaker answered questions?
Of course, that did not happen. As soon as the protesters were allowed into the classroom, they prevented the ICE representative from speaking. The ICE representatives eventually left and Redbird canceled the class to discuss the issue with the protesters that just prevented her students from hearing an opposing view.
The comments of the Northwestern students were predictable after being told by people like Schapiro that some offensive speech should be treated as a form of assault. SESP sophomore April Navarro rejected that faculty should be allowed to invite such speakers to their classrooms for a “good, nice conversation with ICE.” She insisted such speakers needed to be silenced because they “terrorize communities” and profit from detainee labor. Here is the face of the new generation of censors being shaped by speech-intolerant academics like Schapiro:
“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence. We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”
It is reminiscent of chilling recent editorial by students at Wellesley dismissing free speech protections for those with whom they disagree. We have also seen physical attacks on pro-life advocates at the University of California justified on the basis that such views constitute a form of “terrorism.” Likewise, leaders like Howard Dean have dismissed the notion of free speech protection for anything that he views as hate speech.
As for Northwestern, the official response to students shutting down a class to silence an opposing view resulted in a statement that the actions of the students were “disappointing that the speakers were not allowed to speak.” Even more bizarre, there was no demand from the faculty senate to an investigation and for the students to be disciplined. It appears that even academic freedom can be sacrificed in this new orthodoxy on our campus. It is little more than mob rule than professors have to cancel classes when they allow opposing viewpoints to be heard. If universities stand for the exchange of ideas, those who try to silence others must be expelled from the community. Going into a classroom and forcing the cancellation of a class should result in the immediate suspension and eventual expulsion of these students. Navarro have every right to protest but not enter and stop a class to prevent fellow students from listening to opposing views.
If this trend continues under Schapiro, Northwestern will not only fail to be viewed as a leading academic institution but any type of academic institution. The school must decide if it has the courage to stand by free speech and academic integrity or whether it will merely pander to the mob.