In his dissent in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928), Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” While that observation concerns criminal wrongdoing by the government, it seems particularly apropos today on our campuses where impeachments and removals are now seemingly the rage. For the last four years, members of Congress and legal experts have called for impeachments based on everything from Trump’s tweets on NFL kneeling to his denouncing prosecutors. Most recently, this includes the use of a “snap impeachment.” The latest such example is unfolding on the campus of the Rochester Institute of Technology where a student senator is facing impeachment after defending the right of campus police to wear a Blue Lives Matter face mask.
We discussed an earlier impeachment effort at Loyola Marymount University of a student senator who held conservative views. There were prior such impeachments at the University of Southern California and Bowdoin University. A similar effort was launched recently at Georgetown University where the student government moved against a student for writing a column viewed as critical of Black Lives Matter. A similar campaign against conservative students were launched at Cornell University. Editors and writers have also been removed from student publications for their conservative views, including recently at the University of Wisconsin.
In most of these cases, the universities remained conspicuously silent as students were subject to official discipline for holding opposing views of police brutality or the Black Lives Matter movement. It is reflective of the rising intolerance in higher education and the silent acquiescence of university administrators as students and faculty are subjected to these campaigns.
The controversy this week at RIT involves a student senator Jacob Custer and a petition signed by other student senators for his impeachment. What concerns me is the inclusion of Custer’s viewpoints as grounds for impeachment: “These actions include, but are not limited to, negative attitudes towards members, blatant disregard of the effects of controversial topics such as Blue Lives Matter and how it affects the Black and Brown community, and blatant disregard for anyone’s views.”
For his part, Custer claims that the campaign was launched after he defended a campus officer who who wore a Thin Blue Line face mask. According to the conservative site College Fix, Custer wrote “Wearing such masks if they want to is not counterintuitive. It is perfectly okay for students and adults to express it since it is free speech. It is not disrespectful either. We are student government, representing all students. It is not our role to determine what idea is good or bad simply because a few members or more disagree with it and punish members of our community over something small. That is just outright censorship.”
I cannot speak to the merits of these claims but what concerns me is the absence of clear position of the university that students should not be penalized for their political or social viewpoints. If there is evidence that Custer has failed in required duties, they should be stated directly and clearly. More importantly, the inclusion of his viewpoints in the resolution should be addressed by the university.
The very intellectual touchstone of higher education is free speech and academic freedom. Students who come to our campuses should be able to engage in our national debate over such issues without fear of being ostracized or penalized. The message from such campaigns is clear for conservative, libertarian, or just contrarian students: if you voice dissenting views, you will be formally denounced or removed from positions. The organizers of these campaigns know that such actions have a harmful impact on future applications or prospects for accused students. The intended chilling effect is glacial on any other student who want to engage in a good-faith debate over the issues that will be defining our nation for generations.