“The school accepted the complaint from the students and stated that the school police would be instructed to investigate the incident. A person in charge of the school’s multicultural office expressed regret that this harmful and offensive poster was posted on the school. The principal also responded to the incident, saying that the content of these posters also offended him….The central ideas expressed are not based on indisputable opinions but, on the contrary, on highly controversial political disputes.”
The university should have responded that free speech does not have to be “indisputable” to be allowed. Indeed, it is most valuable in exercising dissenting views on controversies of our time. The CCA was wrong in my view to file the complaint to seek action to silence these views rather than responding with its own posters and viewpoints.
In his initial statement, Wrighton said that he was “personally offended by the posters” and said the school was “working to have all of these offensive posters removed as soon as possible.” He added that “I treasure the opportunity to work with talented people from all over the world, including China . . . I, too, am saddened by this terrible event, and we will undertake an effort to determine who is responsible.”
This was not a “terrible event.” It was an example of free and open debate at an institution of higher education. The immediate impulse to tear down the posters (and launch an investigation) is alarming from any president of a major university. While Wrighton showed the integrity to admit his error, his initial inclination to shutdown free speech shocked many of us in the free speech community. It is the type of hair-triggered censorship that has eroded free speech on our campus and the comfort level of students in speaking out on issues.
We previously discussed a new study showing that sixty-five (65) percent agreed that people on campus today are prevented from speaking freely. The poll is additional evidence of the failure of administrators and faculty to maintain campuses as forums for free thought and intellectual engagement. This study shows that conservatives and Republicans on campus feel the loss of free speech most acutely. That is consistent with other studies. For example, an earlier poll at the University of North Carolina found that conservative students are 300 times more likely to self-censor themselves due to the intolerance of opposing views on our campuses.
The posters in this case were obviously political speech even with the most cursory review. The 2022 Winter Games have been dubbed the “Genocide Olympics” by critics who believe the competition should not be held in the country. The posters featured drawings made by Badiucao, a dissident Chinese artist, who published a screenshot of Wrighton’s initial email and demanded “an explanation why exposing CCP’s abuse offends him.”
“Last week, the university learned of posters on campus depicting images that alarmed some members of our community, and we began to receive a number of concerns through official university reporting channels that cited bias and racism against the Chinese community. I also received an email directly from a student who expressed concerns.
“At that time, and without more context on the origin or intent of the posters, I responded hastily to the student, writing that I, too, was concerned. University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed. These responses were mistakes. Every member of the GW community should feel welcome and supported, but I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.”
I remain concerned about the controversy and the statement that “University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed.” Who made that decision?
Someone at the university decided to rip down political posters. The university should have some process of review before such an extraordinary act is ordered by any official or office. Indeed, it should have a committee that can be called upon to review such an emergency request and allow members to advise the President before the university censors speech.
Wrighton added “There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters. I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech—even when it offends people—and creative art is a valued way to communicate on important societal issues.”
Again, I am thankful to President Wrighton for admitting his error, but the university needs to recognize the lingering concerns over this incident. It is hard to assure people that you are a supporter of freedom of speech on the heels of an impulsive act of censorship. We need to explore reforms, including the suggested committee, to offer more than personal testimonials to support free speech at George Washington University.
George Washington once famously remarked that “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” As an institution of higher education, we are dedicated to fighting ignorance and intolerance. Free speech and academic freedom are the values that are the essential elements in achieving that mission. In this instance, the university and its president failed in our commitment to the school and our students.