The George Washington University (where I teach) has a new free speech controversy after the Student Association Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on school officials to suspend the campus chapter of the Young America’s Foundation (YAF) for alleged four “transphobic” tweets.
There are four tweets posted from a three-day period:
“…On April 20, 2022, at 5:57 pm, GW Young America’s Foundation Tweeted from their official Twitter account “oh the pro-pedo libs are gonna LOVE this one” as a quote Tweet of the official Young America’s Foundation Twitter account;
…On April 21, 2022, at 4:52 pm, GW Young America’s Foundation Tweeted “we aren’t the ones advocating for the grooming and sexualization of children…” in response to a Tweet calling them disgusting;
…On April 22, 2022, at 10:21 am, GW Young America’s Foundation Tweeted “AGREE OR GET CANCELLED: @benshapiro explains how trans ‘rights’ are an attack on free speech.”;
…On April 22, 2022, at 3:56 pm, GW Young America’s Foundation Tweeted “The statement that pedophiles shouldn’t be teaching in schools should not be controversial, it’s common sense.”
Among the relief demands is the suspension of the group and for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to “conduct trainings” with the conservative group to ensure it “understand[s] why [its] statements were wrong.”
YAF deleted the first tweet and said that the word pedophile should not have been used and “did not represent the entire organization’s views.” It further said that it “was not meant to refer to transgender people as pedophiles, only people who support implementing education about gender and sexuality in elementary schools.”
There are clear justification in other students objecting to the tweet. However, the organization told The Hatchet that
“a YAF e-board member posted the tweet without “any pre-approval,” and that the member is no longer part of the organization. Moving forward, we will closely scrutinize our social media posts to ensure that they are in-line with the executive board’s views as a whole.”
While some have said that this statement does not expressly offer an apology, it is clear that the group has disassociated itself from the statement made by someone who is no longer with the group.
The question is whether this and the other tweets justify a suspension of a group and mandatory training.
The second tweet was reportedly in response to a member of GW Reproductive Autonomy and Gender Equity calling YAF “disgusting.” It reflected a view of some conservatives that early exposure of children (particularly from kindergarten to third grade) constitutes “grooming and sexualization.” That is a roaring debate on and off campus, particularly in light of the recent Florida parental rights law. While many understandably view the statement to be insulting and inaccurate, it is a political viewpoint supported not only by these students but various politicians and pundits. It should be treated as protected speech on campus.
The third tweet stated “AGREE OR GET CANCELLED: @benshapiro explains how trans ‘rights’ are an attack on free speech.” Again, many students have a legitimate right to denounce that statement as insulting and inaccurate. However, it is a political statement that captures not only the views of Shapiro but the view of many conservatives. It should also be treated as protected speech on campus.
The fourth tweet, again, uses the term “pedophiles” that many understandably find insulting. It is not clear what this statement is referencing from the resolution. However, the labeling of others in this debate as pedophiles is irresponsible, offensive, and wrong. The group itself publicly stated that the word “pedophile” should not have been used in the discussion.
The resolution maintains that action is required from the university “to improve safety for the LGBTQ+ Community.”
There is ample basis for condemnation of the use of this label in tweets. Trans individuals have long faced this prejudicial, harmful, and demeaning label in society. They are often portrayed as threats to children due to their identity. We should all stand in opposition to such characterizations and be cognizant of how such labels impact members of our community.
However, the suspension of the group (which only received $186 from the university according to the Hatchet) would come at a high cost for free speech. I have seen other groups at GW engage in insulting and reckless characterizations. That includes calling Republicans fascists, racists, and other terms. Likewise, pro-life advocates are often denounced as being anti-feminist or misogynistic.
As forums of free speech, universities encourage students to participate in political causes and engage in debates over contemporary issues. In so doing, schools strive not to regulate such speech out of concern for free speech values. That can be difficult when passionate debate leads to reckless or offensive comments. Such intervention can create a slippery slope of regulation where the university is called upon to address a myriad of offensive or insulting characterizations in political debates.
In this case, YAF was legitimately called out for the use of pedophile in these exchanges on Twitter. The groups deleted one tweet and said that the term should not be used as part of the debate. If the university goes further, it will need to establish not just a bright-line rule on how it will be responding to such insults but also address the failure to do so with other groups.
The concern over consistent and uniform treatment of speech is long-standing on campuses. In past postings, I have defended faculty who have made an array of disturbing comments about “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also supported the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.
Even when faculty engage in hateful acts on campus, however, there is a notable difference in how universities respond depending on the viewpoint. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. We also previously discussed the case of Fresno State University Public Health Professor Dr. Gregory Thatcher who recruited students to destroy pro-life messages written on the sidewalks and wrongly told the pro-life students that they had no free speech rights in the matter.
In all of these controversies, my natural default is in favor of free speech despite the offensive content of the statements. I have the same inclination in this controversy. The group has pledged to more closely monitor tweets using the group account and to avoid the use of the term “pedophile” in the debate. The students were correct in calling out YAF for the tweets, but a suspension would raise troubling free speech implications for the university, particularly after the recent censorship of a group criticizing the Chinese government.
This is an important debate for our community and legitimately caused this group to review and revise its approach to social media commentary. The resolution, however, fails to consider the countervailing dangers to free speech raised by the controversy. A suspension of the group would undermine free speech rights on campus.