The campus speech wars appear to be entering a new phase—in which straightforward and wholly appropriate political statements that impugn liberalism are derided as harassment and violence. This has been the case with the "Trump 2016" chalkings at Emory University and the University of Michigan, and it is now the case with an "All Lives Matter" flyer left on a faculty member's door at American University.
This trend will be a disaster for political expression at university campuses unless strongly confronted and denounced by administrators and professors. Unfortunately, AU's Washington College of Law has taken the side of the perpetually offended.
Recently, an AU law professor who is active on racial justice issues returned to their office to discover that someone had posted a handwritten note "All Lives Matter" on their door, according to The Washington Post. "All Lives Matter," of course, is a phrase often deployed by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to combat racism in society.
The proper response was probably to tear down the flyer and move on with life. Instead, both the dean, and the faculty at large, felt the need to weigh in on the matter. They alleged that the "All Lives Matter" flyer was a very serious and disturbing incident—tantamount to racial harassment and intimidation—that negated AU's safe space.
According to Claudio Grossman, dean of the law school:
The circumstances and manner of placing this flier on a community member's door do not involve the kind of civil and thoughtful discourse that we encourage and aspire to in our community, and indeed may serve to intimidate others and discourage their full participation in the marketplace of ideas.
No member of this community is permitted to engage in harassing, intimidating or threatening behavior towards any other community member. The person who posted this flier did so anonymously and surreptitiously, at a time and in a manner that, regardless of his or her actual intent, had the effect of harassing and intimidating that faculty member as well as others – students, faculty, and staff alike – who seek and deserve to study and work in a safe and non-threatening environment.
I strongly encourage continued discussion and debate about race and our justice system and about any and all issues of concern to our diverse community. But this discussion and debate must happen in settings and forms that serve to promote discussion, not stifle it, and that make all members of our community feel empowered, safe and free to express their views.
The law faculty's statement was even more over-the-top:
The "All Lives Matter" sign might seem to be a benign message with no ill intent, but it has become a rallying cry for many who espouse ideas of white supremacy and overt racism, as well as those who do not believe the laws should equally protect those who have a different skin color or religion. Importantly, the phrase "All Lives Matter" has been used in direct response to "Black Lives Matter," a human rights movement that has become synonymous with protests over police killings of unarmed black men and boys. The phrase seeks to convey the fact that black people are not expendable, even though the use of lethal force by some in law enforcement suggest that black lives do not matter as much as the lives of other people they encounter. In a perfect world, no one would have to be reminded that black lives matter because all lives would be treated with the same respect and dignity.
Leaving an anonymous sign on a professor's door is not an acceptable way to have a discussion about controversial issues. Talking about controversial and divisive issues can be very difficult, but we must have these conversations in a respectful way. Also, we must be open to being educated about diverse perspectives. Conversations on race, gender, sexual identity, and nationality will occur in a wide range of classes. Our faculty must continue to facilitate discussions on these topics, and we remain committed to healthy dialogue and debate. We recognize that there is room for respectfully disagreeing with others' perspectives. Approaching someone and definitively stating your view as if there is only one possible perspective on the issue is not conducive to a constructive dialogue. There is value in simply asking someone, "If you feel comfortable, I would like to talk to you sometime about X. I have been reading a lot about the topic, and I am interested in hearing your perspective." Few would take offense at your non-confrontational invitation to have the conversation. The diverse law school environment is a place to perfect the level of civility that should permeate our personal and professional lives. We hope that everyone at WCL will communicate with each other in a way that embodies our core values of diversity, inclusion and tolerance.
I agree with the dean and the faculty that leaving a note on a professor's door is not the best and most persuasive way to convince anyone to change their views. And professors certainly have every right to challenge their students and urge them to direct their advocacy into more productive channels.
But one can disagree with the flyer's message, and the tactical thinking behind it, without getting too paranoid about whether it constitutes a safety threat. Political speech with which one disagrees is not, by itself, harassment—particularly when said speech constitutes as mild a statement as "All Lives Matter." (As U.S. Civil Rights Commissioners Peter Kirsanow and Gail Heriot noted in a letter to the dean, the phrase "All Lives Matter" has even been uttered by President Barack Obama.)
When the dean of a law school, and many of its faculty, come out so strongly against political expression, they make it seem like such instances of expression are prohibited on campus. I would expect law experts to better understand the difference between actual harassment and protected speech. If they really believe "discussion about controversial issues" is an important facet of campus life, they should not suggest that anonymous flyering transforms AU into an unsafe space.