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At Mizzou, Yale and beyond, campus protests stir fresh questions about free speech

November 12, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
At the University of Missouri, protests and a president's resignation have put a spotlight on heated debate taking place on campuses across the country over hateful speech and racial insensitivities. Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker join Gwen Ifill to discuss questions of free speech and its limitations.
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GWEN IFILL: Marches and demonstrations at Missouri and other universities define a season of unrest on many college campuses. And the response to those protests has stirred fresh questions about how much speech is too much.

Protests against racial incidents drew the spotlight this week at the University of Missouri, where the system president resigned under fire. Celebrations erupted and university police called for reporting hateful or hurtful speech, including descriptions and even pictures of the speakers.

But conservatives and civil libertarians objected, and the system’s new interim head, who recalled his own days as a student protester, addressed the issue today.

MIKE MIDDLETON, Interim President, University of Missouri System: If you’re asking in the context of the First Amendment and free speech issues, that’s a very delicate balance. Both are essential to our way of life in this country. And the trick is to find that balance, that point at which you are accommodating both interests as much as you can.

GWEN IFILL: Similar concerns were on display at Yale, especially after a professor condemned a dean’s warning against offensive Halloween costumes. She complained that colleges are becoming — quote — “places of censure.”

WOMAN: Be quiet!

GWEN IFILL: That led to a shouting match last week between a student and the professor’s husband, a Yale administrator.

WOMAN: It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.

GWEN IFILL: A similar uproar broke out at California’s Claremont McKenna College over racially insensitive Halloween apparel. And there were calls at Vanderbilt in Nashville to suspend a professor who wrote an op-ed deemed intolerant.

Balanced against the speech concerns are growing protests, like this one yesterday at Ithaca College in Upstate New York over the use of the word savage to describe a black speaker at a campus event. And students nationwide are now taking to social media, sharing their stories with the hashtag #blackoncampus.

We explore what’s the proper role of free speech, what goes too far, and how to strike that balance.

Greg Lukianoff is the CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He is also the co-author of the recent “Atlantic” magazine cover story titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” And Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, and a staff writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. His most recent article is “Race and the Free Speech Diversion.”

Jelani Cobb, Professor Cobb, I want to start by asking you, what do you think is the fine line, or is it a fine line at all, between free speech and hate speech?

JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: Well, it’s interesting. My article wasn’t even really dealing with the question of hate speech. It was really dealing with free speech as a virtue, as an ideal, but a way in which it was being cynically deployed on campuses to actually avoid talking about racial issues.

And so we have seen Missouri and Yale, and the students who have been reacting to racial crises on their campuses. And instead of kind of talking about what’s happened to them, the conversation devolved immediately into a conversation about the First Amendment.

I think that was what I was responding to. And, of course, there is such a thing as hate speech and I think that there’s such a thing as free speech. And I think there are probably a thousand different ways in which people differentiate that, but I don’t think that we should go to the kind of absurdist argument, where — that anything that someone says that is remotely, possibly offensive can be deployed against actual, like, legitimately, objectively things that are happening on college campuses.

GWEN IFILL: So, Greg, do you agree that this is a question of deflection?

GREG LUKIANOFF, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: I don’t — I think it’s unfair to call this is a diversion, because if you look at the Yale case — and I was actually on Yale’s campus this time last week — the two professors — one lecturer, one professor who were involved in this, Erika Christakis and Nicholas Christakis, Erika had sent an e-mail to her students, in my opinion, very thoughtfully criticizing the idea that the university should be telling students how they dress for Halloween.

Now, the context for that is universities have been telling students for years not to wear offensive costumes, even Syracuse University creepily warning students that they will be brought up on judicial charges and essentially forced to strip if they are found wearing offensive clothes.

So I thought this was a very thoughtful e-mail. And then what ended up happening, and I know that this ended up being the focal point for a lot of other tensions that were going on, on campus, but I was there for the confrontation with students. And there were dozens of students surrounding Nicholas Christakis in the courtyard of the dormitory.

GWEN IFILL: We just saw that event, yes.

GREG LUKIANOFF: And it definitely something where it was very much directed at Erika.

And so, at the same time people are saying this is a diversion, I am perfectly happy to move on to this case as long as I know that Erika Christakis and Nicholas Christakis’ job are safe. But when they made a statement about — when Yale made a statement about freedom of speech at Yale, they mentioned nothing about the Christakises.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask.

You are in Connecticut, not at Yale, but the University of Connecticut. And you have been following also the University of Missouri case and talking to people on both campuses, Jelani Cobb.

What do you think about that? How much of this was speaking to larger ongoing problems, and this question of free speech was just an example, an excuse to get to them?

JELANI COBB: Sure.

When I have talked to people, I have talked to people at Missouri. I have talked to students at Yale. I have talked to some people who are employed as Yale University as well. And one of the things that they — the commonalities there is that all these people said that these were simply kind of last straws, events.

And so the Christakis event, outside of the context in which people are actually dealing with hostile racial incidents there, it makes it seen as if it’s kind of an absurdist reaction by students who are hypersensitive.

Now, if I could actually make one other point about Mr. Lukianoff’s article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” they devote — and this is about a 5,000-word article, but it — they devote a great deal of attention to the ways that students kind of catastrophize, I think is the term they use, routine slights, so they engage in emotional reasoning, and all these things which are really tantamount to a sort of psychological study of the offended.

But nowhere in there do they actually talk about racism, that people actually experience racial incidents in which a rational response would be to be offended or to believe that this institution is perhaps not the place for you or to believe that you are perhaps in a hostile environment.

GWEN IFILL: Let me allow Mr. Lukianoff to respond.

GREG LUKIANOFF: Well, actually, the catastrophizing we talked about — and it was closer to a 9,000-word article — was administrators catastrophizing.

And my point in the article was talking about how, in K-12 and in college, we have been teaching a generation of students that smart people overreact to relatively small slights. And I talk about examples of a professor who was suspended because he posted a picture of his daughter wearing a “Game of Thrones” T-shirt.

GWEN IFILL: Let me give you both another example.

There’s an online forum called Yik Yak where lots of conversation happens.

GREG LUKIANOFF: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And I saw online today a young woman who was wearing a copy of a posting which read this way. This is at USC: “I am confused by black students without USC athletics backpacks.”

Is that something that, in your definition of this, she should be — she is overreacting to, to be offended by?

GREG LUKIANOFF: I think that’s absolutely obnoxious. And I think if someone were to protest that, we would have their backs on protesting it.

GWEN IFILL: But if the president of that college then didn’t respond in the way she wanted, Jelani Cobb, what then?

JELANI COBB: I think what then happens is what we have seen on multiple campuses since then.

I think one of the other dynamics that was also common in these places was that they felt that the administration did not hear them, that the protests were kind of a last-ditch effort, the culmination of lots of attempts to get the attention of people who had official authority that had fallen short.

And one other thing that I want to make clear about this is that we can kind of take absurdist examples — there are plenty of them — for anything that we want to talk about. And what we do is an injustice. We skew the perception of this actual legitimate issue by simply going, let’s take the example of someone who is fired the “Game of Thrones” T-shirt.

Let’s not take the example of Yik Yak being a forum for people to make horrible, harassing and racial death threats and so on. And those are actually part of the same spectrum. So, if we’re going to have this conversation, we need to talk about the entire spectrum of a sense of language and behavior that is being — that is occurring on college campuses.

GREG LUKIANOFF: Well, let’s do that then and let’s talk about a case where people might disagree — but just came down in the last couple of hours.

Steven Salaita was a — a pro-Palestinian professor who got a job at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he — and he was offered a job and everything was a go. He moved his family there.

And he was fired for sending out offensive — what were considered to be offensive tweets about — that were pro — that were anti-Israeli. And he just settled his case for close to a million dollars just in the past couple of hours.

So, to me, free speech, First Amendment — I’m a First Amendment lawyer. I deal with cases, sometimes tough, sometimes — and an awful lot of ridiculous cases, not a small number, but also ones that are very dreadfully serious, like the Salaita case, where someone was essentially fired for his unpopular opinion.

GWEN IFILL: Was the University of Missouri case not dreadfully serious?

GREG LUKIANOFF: Well, the University of Missouri case, the angle that I was the most concerned about in that one was the stopping of the student press, and particularly for a journalism professor herself to be one of the people pushing, trying to prevent someone was reporting the case.

That’s distressing to those of us who care about freedom of the press.

GWEN IFILL: There’s so much more we could go on this. Unfortunately, this is all that we have the time for.

GWEN IFILL: Jelani Cobb at the University of Connecticut and Greg Lukianoff at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, thank you both very much.

GREG LUKIANOFF: Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: The conversation continues tomorrow night, with the latest in our Race Matters solutions series. Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with a professor who focuses on a form of everyday racism called micro-aggressions.

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