Tulane University (where I once taught) has opened up an investigation into a student, Sarah Ma, after she wrote an opinion piece defending Kanye West in his wearing a “White Lives Matters” shirt and justifying comments that are widely viewed as antisemitic. In addition to the university telling Ma that she should leave the campus for her own safety, Erica Woodley, Tulane’s Associate Vice President & Dean of Students, sent out an email announcing that it was investigating the matter. Woodley stated “While the importance of free expression on a university campus cannot be overstated, words that run counter to our core values impact our community.” Perhaps Tulane cannot “overstate” free speech values, but it is clearly under protecting them in taking this action.
While it should not have to be repeated, defending free speech does not mean that you agree with a speaker or a publication. The point of free speech is that it protects the most unpopular. We do not need protections for popular speakers.
If these accounts are accurate, the question is why Tulane is investigating a student who espoused unpopular, even offensive, views. The solution to bad speech is better speech.
This student has been roundly condemned by many who viewed her defense of Ye as antisemitic. Yet, the university rushed out, after offering the same old claim of being supportive of free speech, to investigate the use of free speech. The message is clear: you have free speech at Tulane so long as it is not too unpopular or deemed offensive to the majority. Here the column “caused much distress” and therefore became the subject of a university investigation.
I have read the column and find many parts of it to be deeply offensive, disturbing, and wrong. Yet, she is not advocating violence or attacking any individuals. She must accept that others will counter her views with equal passion. For those of us who view these tropes to be antisemitic, we can use free speech to denounce the column and the author’s underlying views. Yet, as a Tulane student, Ma expected that she could voice her views on campus without being investigated, physically attacked, or effectively banished.
The question is what is being investigated. Ma wrote an article viewed by many to be offensive. She has a right to do so. If you cannot “overstate” your commitment to free speech, you might want to start by withdrawing the threat of an investigation over its use. If the university is investigating whether the column is offensive and arguably antisemitic, you just need to read the column. The question remains whether the university is barring offensive speech and, if so, what standard will be applied to public comments and publications.
What is particularly chilling is that, in addition to saying that the matter is under investigation, Tulane reportedly advised Ma that she should leave the campus for her own safety.
Ma said that she has received death threats. A campus publication called The Dissident reported that Woodley met with Ma and “advised Ma to leave campus for at least a couple of weeks because Tulane’s administration does not believe she is safe on campus.” Woodley reportedly told Ma that the university could “probably” keep her safe on campus but could not offer even that uncertain protection off campus. So the university is encouraging her to leave campus and study remotely.
It is the obligation of the university to protect not just free speech but those students who engage in free speech. While that may not extend off campus (though the campus police does patrol surrounding streets with student housing), students should be able to count on the university to take whatever actions are needed for their physical protection.
We have previously discussed the failure of Tulane to protect unpopular speech while publicly condemning the speakers. Despite its claim to being highly protective of free speech, the record in recent years shows a growing anti-free speech environment on campus.
Indeed, Tulane ranked 156th in the nation in a recent free speech survey.