There was an interesting contrast this week in the attitude toward free speech values at Boston University with two controversies involving figures at opposing ends of the political spectrum. In one case, a professor defended looting and other crimes as forms of racial justice. In the other case, a speaker was hosted to speak about conservative values deemed anti-LGBTQ. One of the speakers was the subject of a student government resolution declaring him to be a danger to students and rejecting free speech rights for him to be heard by others on campus. Can you guess which one?
The two controversies would seem to reaffirm the value of free speech across the political spectrum. While we can disagree with one or both of these speakers, we should be able to agree that a university is a place for a diversity of positions and viewpoints. That is not exactly how it is viewed by many on the Boston University campus.
Boston University’s Student Government Association (SGA) recently passed a resolution calling for various reforms after the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter hosted the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles as a speaker. The students declared that Knowles is “openly transphobic and actively seeks to erode and endanger the LGBTQ+ community.” The resolution states that “differing political views can and should be tolerated but not when marginalized identities are harmed.”
The students further reject that “intentionally incendiary speech and rhetoric [is] compatible with the safety of the community.”
The resolution included statements that have become a common position among those seeking to censor opposing views. There is a perfunctory expression of support for free speech followed by the call to curtail the speech of those who hold dissenting or opposing views as threats to the safety of others: “We fully believe in freedom of speech and expression, however there is a line between free speech and hate speech that must be drawn.”
The resolution goes on to support a variety of demands, including “housing for transgender, gender nonconforming, and intersex (TGNCI) students” and a “LGBTQ+ resource center for students to provide visible and dedicated LGBTQ+ student support.” However, the thrust of the resolution is to condemn the school for allowing Knowles to speak and allow others to hear his views on campus.
At the same time, Professor Saida Grundy was making inflammatory comments from the far left. While Dr. Grundy is a member of the faculty and spoke through social media, there has not been similar objections raised about her history of “incendiary speech and rhetoric.”
On social media, Dr. Grundy appeared to justify violence without any statement of concern from the student government. Grundy is an assistant professor in BU’s Department of Sociology & Program in African American Studies and declared:
“If we’re going to talk about George Floyd and really understand, then we need to understand community reactions…We often hear politicians … [and] civic leaders from inside Black communities and from outside of them as well. [For example,] we heard President Biden say, ‘Well I understand your frustration, but don’t destroy property’…Well when you say that to Black people – who historically have been property – one of our greatest weapons was the looting of ourselves as property from the system of slavery. And what we see in communities is they are reacting to the very racism of what we call property.”
It is hardly a new position. After extensive rioting and looting a few years ago, various commentators defended such crimes as free speech.
We have previously discussed Grundy’s extreme views after a series of racist postings on social media. Even before starting her position at BU, Grundy caused a stir with racially insensitive remarks. In a series of tweets, she made statements that were denounced by many as racist and sexist, including “White masculinity isn’t a problem for america’s colleges, white masculinity is THE problem for america’s colleges.”
In another tweet, Grundy wrote: “Every MLK week I commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. and every year i find it nearly impossible.” Previously, she posted comments like “Deal with your white sh*t, white people. slavery is a *YALL* thing.” Grundy later apologized for the remarks but many asked if a white professor would have been retained after saying that the problem on colleges was black masculinity.
Boston University retained Grundy while stating that “… we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements.” The university further stated that it “does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements.” Boston University president Robert Brown expressed “disappointment” with her statements and Grundy herself apologized for what she called “indelicate” wording.
Grundy continued to make controversial racial comments after she actually began work at BU. She later attacked a white woman and rape victim on Facebook, who expressed her personal feelings over an article criticizing actress Patricia Arquette for her call at the Oscars for equal pay for women. The criticism was laced with vehement attacks on white women.
There were also calls for Grundy’s termination after the disclosure of a criminal record linked to impersonating another woman in Michigan.
In these prior controversies, I supported Dr. Grundy. I wrote that I would have had great reservations about hiring her but that, as a current professor, she should be afforded the protection of free speech in making controversial and even racist comments. These controversies highlight a long-standing debate that we have had over the increasing trend toward firing people for their speech on social media and associations in their private lives.
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.
Yet, as shown by Dr. Grundy, liberal professors continue to enjoy the full protection of academic freedom and free speech. Indeed, at the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.
The support enjoyed by faculty on the far left is in sharp contrast to the treatment given faculty with moderate, conservative or libertarian views. Anyone who raises such dissenting views is immediately set upon by a mob demanding their investigation or termination. This includes blocking academics from speaking on campuses like a recent Classics professor due to their political views. Conservatives and libertarians understand that they have no cushion or protection in any controversy, even if it involves a single, later deleted tweet.
One such campaign led to a truly tragic outcome with criminology professor Mike Adams at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington). Adams was a conservative faculty member with controversial writings who had to go to court to stop prior efforts to remove him. He then tweeted a condemnation of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper for his pandemic rules, tweeting that he had dined with six men at a six-seat table and “felt like a free man who was not living in the slave state of North Carolina” before adding: “Massa Cooper, let my people go.” It was a stupid and offensive tweet. However, we have seen extreme comments on the left — including calls to gas or kill or torture conservatives — be tolerated or even celebrated at universities.
Celebrities, faculty and students demanded that Adams be fired. After weeks of public pummeling, Adams relented and took a settlement to resign. He then killed himself a few days before his final day as a professor.
That brings us back to Boston University. The position of the student government is that this conservative speaker should have been banned as a threat to the safety of the campus. Yet, they have no objection to a professor who has defended looting and acts of violence as forms of racial justice. The problem, again, is not the implied support for Dr. Grundy. It is the lack of support for those speakers and academics who hold opposing views. Under the approach of the student government, the speech of figures like Knowles can be banned as “intentionally incendiary speech and rhetoric” while the speech of figures like Grundy are tolerated or even celebrated.
It is an all-too-familiar contradiction not only among students but many faculty today. Faculty have rationalized their silence in the face of increasingly hostile environments for faculty and students holding dissenting views on our campuses. The anti-free speech sentiments expressed by this student government is the result of years of passivity and silence by faculty and administrators.