We have been discussing the rapid erosion of free speech on our campuses and the increasing confrontations with students who bar speech with which they disagree. (Here and here and here and here) The most disturbing aspect of this trend has been the active support of academics and administrators, including defining the prevention of free speech as an exercise of free speech. The result is that schools are caving into academic demands made by students. The latest example is the action taken by the State University of New York at Oswego administrator, who reprimanded a student for making other students feel “uncomfortable” by raising liberal intolerance of free speech at an “Open Mic” event last month. Nicole Miller was called out under an “unofficial policy” — thereby confirming the very point of her remarks.
SUNY Alcohol and Other Drug Program Coordinator, Trisha DeWolf contacted Miller to tell her that her discussion of free speech left other students uncomfortable:
“It was brought to my attention that students were uncomfortable with the letter that Nicole read during open mic last week. While I am in support of your freedom of speech, I was implored to reach out you both by more than one student . . . Anytime I receive a complaint I have to follow up. The unwritten policy has always been after one complaint, you receive a verbal warning and any complaint after than may result in being asked to not perform at open mic. I’ve already had to utilize this unwritten rule once this semester.”
Despite DeWolf’s claim of support for free speech, it clearly sounds like Miller is being called out for exercising that right. Yet, Miller merely read a letter during the event that described the experience of a “conservative woman” on a “liberal campus.” She raised the intolerance of some on the left for opposing views — something that we have discussed repeatedly on this blog.
In what proved a prophetic observation, Miller said
“I’ve been on this campus for almost 3 years now and let me tell you it’s been hard to show my beliefs here . . . It sickens me to death that the people that preach tolerance and acceptance of all people are so openly against us and our beliefs. . . . I’ve heard many stories from others like me who were attacked for their beliefs . . . People had their personal property destroyed, their own lives threatened, and administration has done nothing because [we’re] ‘Trump lovers’ . . . The ‘tolerant left’ isn’t very tolerant when it comes to those their same age who have different beliefs.”
DeWolf noted that her comments could “negatively impact the LSC or Open Mic” and the event “is suppose [sic] to be fun way celebrate the end of the semester.”
She then added “A few of our students were deeply hurt by some of your remarks (their words, not mine). Moving forward, there will be written guidelines for performers, which I hate to have to do.”
That sounds a lot like a content-based regulation of speech. So is SUNY going to bar students from raising what they view as free speech intolerance. How about race intolerance? Would that also be proscribed?
Apparently students were discomforted by another student expressing her discomfort over speech intolerance. We recently discussed the alternative approach found in the courageous stand of the University of Chicago against the growing speech codes and “safe spaces” in campuses around the country. Colleges should be forum for a diversity of ideas and values. Some of those ideas will thrill and some will annoy, but they all are part of an open intellectual community. It is not enough for DeWolf to give a perfunctory nod toward free speech while threatening the regulation of future speech and the need to address any comments that might discomfort other students. Her letter should be formally retracted and SUNY should give serious thought to whether it will be a force for free speech or one of the rising number of institutions seeking its curtailment in the name of comfort.