Brown University is under fire this week for an act of censorship that undermines its status as a leading academic institution. The university removed an article discussing a peer-reviewed article that ran in PLOS One by Lisa Littman, an assistant professor in behavioral sciences at Brown. The article discusses “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” and how this transition toward transgender status is influenced by social media and online videos. That nexus was immediately flagged by activists as not fitting the narrative that such gender decisions are predetermined and pressure was put on Brown University to act. Bess Marcus, dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, explained that the article was removed because ” the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.” Instead, Marcus and the university discredited its entire academic institution by engaging in censorship and attacking academic freedom principles. Rather than simply allowing an opposing academic viewpoint to be heard, the university removed a story on research by popular demand.
My objections to this action by Brown has nothing to do with the conclusions of the article. Indeed, Marcus should have taken the same approach and said that the conclusions — or how they are received — is not the basis for censorship or countervailing action from the university.
In a statement, Marcus acknowledges that the university “has heard from Brown community members” outraged over the suggestion of the study expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to “conclusions of the study.” The study details the accounts of parents about a common “immersion in social media,” likeas binge-watching “transition videos” and excessive use of social media.
The removals triggered a Daily Wire report but Brown’s faculty has been relatively quiet in the face of this extraordinary action.
What is weird is that I fail to see why this study is so discrediting of the transgender views of critics. A child who is transgender is likely to focus on social media and videos in trying to make sense of their feelings and explore their options. It can also be taken in a more cause-and-effect way. However, this is all part of what should be an academic debate. Instead, Brown sought to end the debate through censorship while Marcus implausibly insisted that Brown still believes in academic freedom.
Marcus only recently started as dean after coming from the University of California (San Diego). In my view, she should resign if she pushed for the censorship of this article. Ironically, when she was hired, Brown heralded her selection as someone who “brings a remarkable track record of promoting public health research and education as a senior leader at UCSD,” Paxson said. “Her collaborative leadership style and strong commitment to advancing high-impact research will be instrumental in inspiring students and faculty to confront the wide array of complex public health challenges that face society.” Apparently, that only applies to research that she or the others find comfortable or acceptable in their conclusions.
The action of Brown is a chilling example of the increasing pressures felt by academics in limiting free speech, associational, and academic rights on campuses. The entire value of tenure is that professors feel free to buck commonly held or popular views in the pursuit of truth. That does not mean that they are always right, but the academic freedom and free speech values of universities sustain the intellectual life of these institutions. Marcus and others are sending a chilling message to young academics that, if they do not reach popular conclusions, they could face censorship and ultimately negative consequences in their pursuit advancement and tenure.
What is particularly disturbing is that academics decided that — rather than engaged in good-faith debate with Professor Littman and published counterarguments, they contacted the university to prevent others from reading about the study on the website.
The relative silence of the Brown faculty is itself alarming and gives this chilling message a glacial meaning.