Now for some good news. We have been following efforts to have professors stripped of academic positions or outright fired for voicing opposing views of police shootings, Black Lives Matter movement or aspects of recent protests from the University of Chicago to Harvard to Cornell to other schools. Now we have a professor at Creighton University who has triggered an outcry by calling support for police officers an expression of white supremacy. The University later issued an apology on behalf of Associate Professor of Theology Zachary Smith but no one has called for his termination. Today, that is progress. We can only hope that if Smith’s comments were directed at groups or issues associated with the current protests, the university and his colleagues would have the same measured or muted response.
Today we discussed the formal censuring of a conservative student at Georgetown for his criticism of Black Lives Matter as an organization and his objections to a recent ruling by the Supreme Court. Georgetown University has remained silent as the student has been declared a racist and the student government called for his investigation. At Penn State, the university took an important step in this time of rising intolerance and actually included conservative students in a welcoming message. It did not last. After an outcry from students, the university deleted the tweet — thereby sending precisely the opposite message to conservative students.
We have been discussing the targeting of professors who voice dissenting opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings, or aspects of the protests around the country from the University of Chicago to Cornell to Harvard to other schools. However, student face even greater pressure to conform to a new orthodoxy enforced on our campuses. An example is conservative Georgetown University junior Billy Torgerson who was the subject of a formal resolution of condemnation by the Georgetown University Student Association as well as a call for a bias complaint to the university. The reason is a column posted on his own website entitled “A Nation Of Virtuous Individuals” in which he espouses widely held conservative views of the law and patriotic views of the country.
By any measure, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, who holds the Johnstone Family Chair of Psychology, is one of the most influential intellectual leaders in the world. He is also someone who believes in robust intellectual discourse and free thought and speech. That propensity for academic freedom has now made him a target of hundreds of academics and graduate students who are seeking his removal from the Linguistic Society of America. The letter is one of the most chilling examples of the new orthodoxy that has taken over our academic institutions. The signatories seek his removal for holding opposing views on issues like underlying causes of police shootings and other research. The cited grievances are at best nuanced and at worst nonsensical. Yet, hundreds signed their names and academic affiliations to try to punish a professor for holding opposing views to their own. We have been discussing these cases across the country including a similar effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago. It is part of a wave of intolerance sweeping over our colleges and our newsrooms — a campaign that will devour its own in the loss of academic freedoms and free speech. (I should note that I do not know Dr. Pinker and, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met him).
Many years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at Tsinghua University, considered one of the best educational institutions in China. I was impressed as faculty at the university struggled to remain intellectually active under the repressive controls of the Communist regime. It is a perilous existence as academics fear that they will write anything that annoys the government. Now, one of the best known law professors in China, Xu Zhangrun, has been arrested. Xu predicted the crackdown after he recently wrote a piece criticizing the government’s response to the coronavirus. His colleagues have been forced into silence at the risk of their own arrest. The arrest comes at a time when many are concerned about the loss of free speech in this country, not by the government but private companies and universities. I have chastised faculty around the country for their silence in the face of the increasing intolerance for opposing views on campuses and actions against professors raising dissenting views of the current protests. Indeed, many have joined in the call for such punitive measures. Xu is an example of the courage that academics in places like China have shown in the face of imminent threats to their liberty and even their lives.
Below is my column in The Hill on the increasingly common rationalization that looting and property damage is a long-standing tradition first embraced by the Sons of Liberty in the Boston Tea Party. That historical analogy was very popular in the days before the Fourth of July. A professor made the comparison on CNN on the Fourth. The view is widely raised in universities like the column in the University of Arizona’s Daily Wildcat newspaper declaring “The Boston Tea Party was when we first saw looting as a form of protest in America. White people acting out in anger is literally celebrated in our history books.” Likewise, at the University of Dayton last week, a column stated “There is something to be said when our White founders destroying British property in the Boston Tea Party is glorified in every textbook, but burning down a Target for the rights of African Americans to simply breathe is damned in the media.”
It is a revisionist historical argument that is as convenient as it is wrong. While the Framers would have supported the vast majority of protesters who engaged in peaceful demonstrations for reform and racial equality, the Sons of Liberty would have been the first to denounce the concept of wanton property destruction or looting as a means for social change.
Here is the column:
There is a controversy raging at the University of Cambridge after English professor Priyamvada Gopal posted a June 23rd tweet that “White Lives Don’t Matter.” Thousands signed a petition to have Gopal fired but the university has correctly stood by her free speech rights. The question should not be whether Gopal is fired, but the virtual certainty that she would have been fired in many universities if she made the same comment about other races. As a blog focusing on free speech, we have repeatedly discussed the investigation and termination of professors for controversial statements on social media. The greatest concern is the lack of any consistent or coherent protection of free speech in universities. Free speech dies with doubt as to what will be the subject of toleration and what will be the subject of termination. That is why bright line rules are maintained by courts in this field that specifically bar content-based viewpoint discrimination from the government.
We recently discussed the release of photos of suspects by the FBI of individuals connected to the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson outside of the White House. One of those arrested is Jason Charter who is described as the “ringleader.” He is also a George Washington University student and a professed supporter of Antifa. Charter is likely to be a priority prosecution for the Administration. However, his criminal case could raise some challenging issues on admissibility of evidence of his affiliations and political views.
We have been discussing the wanton destruction of public memorial and statues across the country, including baffling attacks on abolitionists and those who fought against slavery. One of the most incongruous targets has been Abraham Lincoln in various cities. Now, students at the University of Wisconsin, including the Black Student Union and the Student Inclusion Coalition, have demanded the removal of Lincoln’s statue as ‘a single-handed symbol of white supremacy.” The signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, the vocal advocate for the 13th Amendment, and the man assassinated for his war against the South and slavery. Saying that Lincoln is the “symbol of white supremacy” has about as much foundation as saying Harvey Milk is the symbol of militant heterosexuality. Both were great leaders who were killed at the height of campaigns for equality. As I discuss below, there are aspects of Lincoln’s legacy that are worthy of condemnation but even John Wilkes Booth would dispute the claim of Lincoln as the embodiment of white supremacy.
George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc surprised many faculty members yesterday with a public declaration of the university for making the 51st state. There is considerable support for statehood at the university but there is no indication that the faculty voted on such a declaration and there is no indication that even the Board as a whole voted on the matter. Some of us have long maintained that, regardless of the merits of a political measure, the university should avoid speaking for the entire institution out of respect to myriad of different voices and views represented in our community. This could well be a question upon which we should abandon our traditional neutrality as an institution and speak as one voice. As one of the oldest institutions in the city, the university may have legitimately wanted to be heard on the question. Yet, even when the school chooses to do so, faculty governance values warrant that the faculty should be given an opportunity to be heard. The staff and students also deserve to be heard as part of this process. This specific legislation has been pending for months and we could have presented the matter to the faculty, staff, and students for their input. If we did, I am not aware of it and the university did not suggest that such a vote was ever taken by the community. I have asked other faculty who were also unaware of any vote by the faculty, students or staff. The university itself could not cite any prior vote after an inquiry. The result is not necessarily different but the process is important. I would feel the same way (indeed more so) if the University announced opposition to D.C. statehood without faculty, staff, and student participation.
We have been following controversies over free speech on campuses, particularly in recent weeks involving faculty and student critics of the ongoing protests or the “Defund The Police” movement. Indeed, I have a column on those concerns this morning. The most recent controversy concerns a Catholic chaplain, Daniel Moloney, who has resigned as chaplain for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His removal followed his reference to the criminal record of George Floyd and equivocating comments on the problem of racism in police departments. His case raises the question of whether the free speech concerns should be treated differently for non-academic positions.
We have been discussing the destruction of statues and public art in the recent protests, including a new column this morning. I have been highly critical of the defacing of our monuments and destruction of public art. Now the destruction has reached my own campus. The Hatchet reports that one of our iconic busts of George Washington was torn from its foundation on campus. It has not however been discussed by the University or attributed to protesters.
We recently discussed the apology of the New York Times for publishing a column from a leading United States Senator on the possible use of troops to quell rioting after the death of George Floyd. That decision, and the sacking of the opinion page editor, represented one of the lowest moments in American journalism. It made echo journalism the official policy of one of the oldest news organizations in the United States. The lesson was not, it appears, lost on young college journalists at Syracuse University who sacked a columnist because she questioned claims of “institutional racism.” Adrianna San Marco notably did not write her opinion in The Daily Orange but she was canned for challenging this widely held view. My greatest concern is the lack of specificity from the editors on the objections to her column beyond “reinforcing stereotypes.” Such actions demand a clarity in the standard being applied to writers.
We have been writing about efforts to fire professors who have criticized the “Defund the Police” campaign or Black Lives Matter. Now, Charles Negy, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, is under school investigation and has received police protection after he tweeted about what he views as “black privilege.” While countless professors have written about “white privilege,” Negy is looking at discipline or termination while police have been called to his house to protect his life. Negy is not the first professor to be put under police protection after voicing criticism of the protests or BLM. Once again, I am less interested in the merits of the underlying debate as the implications for free speech and academic freedom. As one of the large free speech blogs, we have long discussed efforts to pressure or fire academics for their exercise of free speech and academic freedom. Recently, however, these efforts have been joined by schools and fellow academics who seek to deter others from expressing opposing views.