Campus Free Speech

PEN America's Report on Campus Free Speech Gets the Yale Debacle Really Wrong

Report provides an overview of threats to free speech while refusing to label the campus situation a 'crisis.'

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Yale
Screenshot via Clarissa D / Youtube

Is free speech in a state of crisis on American college campuses? Not quite, says anti-censorship organization PEN America in its recent hundred-page report on the subject.

"PEN America's view, as of October 2016, is that while the current controversies merit attention and there have been some troubling incidences of speech curtailed, there is not, as some accounts have suggested, a pervasive 'crisis' for free speech on campus," the authors note.

It's a verdict more than a little at odds with the rest of the report, which exhaustively details a number of beyond troubling incidents. As First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told The New York Times, "I find it hard to read [the report's] extraordinarily powerful depiction of things that have happened on campus without concluding there is a crisis of great magnitude."

Note that Abrams nevertheless considers the report "a big step forward." I agree. It's an impressive document that emphasizes sensible solutions to the situation on campus. PEN America's criticism of Title IX—and its demand for clarification on the difference between protected speech and illegal sexual harassment—is particularly notable.

But the report gets some things wrong, and shows too much deference to anti-speech agitators, on grounds that these students' demands for censorship are actually an exercise in free speech—a point that's not as persuasive as its articulators seem to think.

The report ventures into particularly shaky territory for its "case study" of the Nicholas and Erika Christakis incident at Yale University last fall. The case study quotes student-activists, activist-sympathetic writers, and activist-sympathetic administrators, all of whom think the mob that hounded Christakis was merely exercising free speech. While it's true that these students were indeed exercising their free speech rights, the more important question was whether the administration should humor their demands for emotional protection—and, in doing so, deprive other students, faculty members, and the Christakises of their free speech rights. The report quotes Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway as saying:

I don't see it as a free speech challenge at all. Erika Christakis had every right to send that email. She had every right to do it. No one said she didn't have a right to do it. Free speech is not going to be free from consequence, so we saw consequence. Students getting upset and demanding her ouster: That is free speech as well.

It is free speech to make that demand, yes. But if Yale met that demand—if it fired every professor or administrator who offended anyone—the college would foster an anti-speech campus.

The report also describes the incident as "a young woman screaming at a seemingly mild-mannered faculty member in an open square on campus." But that's not completely accurate: as subsequent videos revealed, more than one student lost their cool with Christakis.

Neither Holloway nor Yale President Peter Salovey seem to appreciate the censorious nature of their students' demands, which ultimately resulted in the Christakises resigning most of their duties (Nicholas Christakis is still teaching).

The report continues:

As historian and Yale College dean Jonathan Holloway asked in an interview with PEN America: "Whose speech matters enough to be defended?" At times these controversies have led some groups of students to question the value of free speech itself. Students have asked whether free speech is being wielded as a political weapon to ward off efforts to make the campus more respectful of the rights and perspectives of minorities. They see free speech drawn as a shield to legitimize speech that is discriminatory and offensive. Some have argued that free speech is a prerequisite of the privileged, used to buttress existing hierarchies of wealth and power. Some have gone so far as to justify censorship as the best solution to protect the vulnerable on campus.

Indeed, these are all anti-speech arguments that have become popular with certain far-left-leaning pockets on dozens of campuses. They ought to be denounced in the strongest of terms. Free speech is not a prerequisite of the powerful—the powerful do not need free speech nearly as much as the marginalized do. Free speech does protect offensive speech, and for good reason—because whether or not an idea is offensive has little bearing on whether it's true, or needs to be heard. Censorship cannot protect vulnerable people—if vulnerable people are in a position to censor others, then they are not actually vulnerable.

Again, PEN America mostly understands this, and on the whole has produced a powerful argument for—and warning about the erosion of—free speech on campus. I would argue only that it lets some anti-speech students off the hook too easily.

Thankfully, the report is much clearer in its rejection of OCR's current Title IX interpretation. PEN America joins the American Association of University Professors in recommending that "OCR should clarify that so-called 'hostile environment' sexual harassment cannot be proven solely on the basis of subjective perceptions that speech is offensive."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—which is quoted throughout the report—agrees that the report's section on Title IX is perhaps its most powerful. FIRE was also impressed with the document as a whole, though shared my concerns about PEN America's reluctance to use the word "crisis":

It would be deeply unfortunate if this usefully nuanced and thorough report were to be ignored by potential readers who preemptively (and mistakenly) conclude that its most noteworthy contribution is that PEN America doesn't think a "crisis" exists.

If discussion of the report focuses solely on whether the word "crisis" is appropriate, the more important, larger points PEN America makes throughout the report's 70 pages of text have been missed.

But regardless of whether the illiberal tenor of the current campus climate is deemed a "crisis," the report details serious problems.

To read the PEN America report, go here.

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  1. No troll bait. Do it again by noon.

    1. I know. How does Robby expect to get any kind of discussion going in the comments if he doesn’t throw the commenters a bone?

        1. What in God’s name, HM. Just what.

        2. I’m confused. Was that supposed to be tears or robo-jizz at the end?

  2. My lived experience as a slightly overweight man who went bald at 22 is being marginalized by Robby’s subjective good looks.

    1. slightly overweight man who went bald at 22

      Go on…

      1. I also have an enormous Jew nose.

        But at least I’m 6’1. So I got that going for me.

        1. Go on…

          (if Ron Swanson cropped his hair down to, say, a #1 or #2, he’d be a perfect 11)

  3. It’s a verdict more than a little at odds with the rest of the report, which exhaustively details a number of beyond troubling incidents. As First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told The New York Times, “I find it hard to read [the report’s] extraordinarily powerful depiction of things that have happened on campus without concluding there is a crisis of great magnitude.”

    IOW the Comey gambit.

    1. Dude got Lynchpinned!

  4. It is free speech to make that demand, yes. But if Yale met that demand?if it fired every professor or administrator who offended anyone?the college would foster an anti-speech campus.

    Since that didn’t happen, what is wrong with PEN’s take again?

    1. so it has to be EVERY professor or administrator in order to become a problem? That some have been forced out is already indicative of anti-speech campus.

      1. Yale didn’t fire either Christakis. Yet Robby is bitching.

        1. A distinction without a difference. When students believe themselves free to harass and harangue the Christakises and the university stands by idly, the administration’s silence is not hard to interpret as acceptance.

          A strong president would say it’s time for the kids to grow up and get over themselves, and that demanding that people be fired over thoughts goes against the grain of higher education. But that didn’t happen. The inmates were given charge of the asylum and yes, Robby is bitching that the Christakis’ exercise of speech was treated as a thought crime.

          1. So what you’re saying is that when certain people have their feelings hurt, speech is a problem.

            What’s the phrase…principals, not principles?

            1. The phrase you’re looking for is “putting words in people’s mouths” which you’ve done now a couple of times. Speech is a problem when it seeks to punish the speech of others, as was clearly the case at Yale. The whole reason the left has targeted Citizens United is that it doesn’t like political opponents being able to muster a voice.

              These students had no interest in debate or persuasion. And ironically, it was their feelings that were hurt when a Christakis suggested they act like grownups during Halloween.

              1. And when they disagreed, and spoke about that disagreement, your feelings were hurt, so you’re claiming they used force.

  5. Seems PEN America takes the same view of campus shenanigans than the left does with allegations of voter fraud: a certain amount of it is okay, so long as the left stands to benefit.

    Left unanswered is the magical threshold at which censorship or fraud or whatever else becomes an issue worth addressing. Imagine if this calculus were applied to the left’s shibboleths on things like grope-y frat parties or handguns left unsecured.

  6. How does one wield a negative right, exactly? It’s like saying my right to not have your fist embedded in my mouth is being wielded in furtherance of my anti-getting-punched agenda.

  7. I’m pleased that we’ve had ao many non-election related posts today.

  8. Really Wrong

    Not Okay.

      1. Its like getting a woman super-pregnant

          1. Is 2+4=5 wronger than 5-2=1?

            1. I find this grammar policing a bit concerning.

    1. more than a little at odds

      I seem to recall getting the memo on “useless qualifiers” around …10th grade. Is this now an accepted thing, like slathering “literally” around in places it makes no sense?

      1. beyond troubling

        its like skipping through a field of OMG Totally Can’t Evens.

        1. He really? should have gone to the Gilmore prose school = where he would have “learned” to construct? his posts a little better. I’m quite certain = that would have “helped”.

          1. that’s a great point, if you assume that there’s no difference at all between ‘internet comments’ and formal writing.

            1. Ahh, stylistic choices for me but not for thee.

              It’s always fun when people pull the “I’m just a comedian on a fake news show Internet commentator and not a professional blogger.”

              1. i do appreciate you noting all my commenty-quirks tho. if you’d included my frequent use of * for random emphasis, or footnotes, you’d have almost gotten the whole set.

                1. I didn’t want to seem too overly stalkerish, honestly.

                  1. I even blushed! its nice to know people pay attention

        1. I was told it was “dumb” because it ends up weakening statements a writer thinks they are emphasizing with ‘more words’.

          like, totally, too. for real.

        2. Thank you for sharing this information; it is very helpful, and there aren’t many similar resources available! However, I would like to point out that there are quite a few problematic points and assumptions being made in this presentation that, once resolved, could really strengthen this discussion. Firstly, you talk about language and gender as “how do men and women talk differently,” a perspective which comes from defining sex and gender in terms of a binary and erases the wide variation of alternative gender expressions.

          Another issue I have is more with the way you frame the question “Can you hear if someone is gay?” One main problem I see here is that you are setting it up as “straight” and “other,” which erases (at least) one important aspect of variation, bisexuality, with the assumption that the “gayness” is what is meaningful in this study of perception – which is actually something I could agree on, but I think it is important to clearly specify why you are framing the question that way.

          In the future, it may be really helpful to familiarize yourself more with the discussion of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and the like – if you have not done so already – and to clarify 1. some of the assumptions/framework you are working with as you did in the first slides and 2. why you have chosen to exclude or include certain parts of the greater range of variation.

          *sigh*

          1. the technical term for that person is “Faghole”

      2. It’s a blog post, who cares?

        If he writes like that for a real article, then yeah, it’s pretty lousy style.

        1. Just let him have it, Zeb. It’s all he has.

          1. Bitching about Robby isn’t my only shtick, its just my best.

        2. (shrug)

          I suppose it depends on the subject. Blog posts about ‘yet another stupid disposable campus kerfuffle’ are one thing; a critique of a widely-cited report on the state of ‘Free Speech’ might get more widespread-attention, and consequently be held to a higher standard.

          but whatever. im not arguing that they need a blog-editor, stat. just noting Robby’s signature-mushiness again

          1. Rico is a professional writer. He’s paid for this. He should have higher standards.

            His blind spot for SJW fallacies is like media bias – obvious to some, invisible to others.

  9. “It’s a verdict more than a little at odds with the rest of the report, which exhaustively details a number of beyond troubling incidents.”

    Yeah, that’s exactly the way these things work, Robby.

    If there are a few exceptions, then there’s no trend.

    Is that what we’re supposed to think?

  10. One of two things is going to happen. Either the nation becomes a totalitarian dystopia, or there is going to be a blood bath. I can’t be the only one whose reached the limits of patience and good will.
    I almost wish these sniveling little ass hats could get the government and society that they want, just so long as I can watch them being shipped off to the re-education campus before they hang me.

    1. They said you was hung!

      (Another movie that could never be made in our modern era of pretentiously sanctimonious sentimental moralizing.)

      1. …And they was right!

        *hitches up belt*

  11. Jerelyn spoke through her ass that day.

    (apologies to Pearl Jam)

  12. Free speech is not going to be free from consequence, so we saw consequence. Students getting upset and demanding her ouster: That is free speech as well.

    And if alumni and other wealthy individuals decide, as a direct consequence of all this heroic freedom, to withhold or withdraw their support, financial and otherwise? That’s a legitimate and welcome exercise of free speech, as well, I presume.

    We’re all free speech heroes, now.

    1. I believe that has happened, the withholding of funds part, and it’s happened at places like Yale, not just those icky state-run redneck institutions like Mizzou. I want to say it was an NYT article (IIRC) but I am too lazy to look it up.

  13. I wonder- if a student withdrew from Yale because they misrepresented the quality of their educational experience, and sued for a refund of all expenses, would the Yale community support that as free speech?

  14. if vulnerable people are in a position to censor others, then they are not actually vulnerable

    Well done, sir. Although I see the regular misanthropes have still found a reason to insult you.

  15. “But the report gets some things wrong, and shows too much deference to anti-speech agitators, on grounds that these students’ demands for censorship are actually an exercise in free speech?a point that’s not as persuasive as its articulators seem to think.”

    Oh boy, Robby’s really gonna knock this one out of the park, and I’m rootin’ for him!

    Here comes the pitch.

    “While it’s true that these students were indeed exercising their free speech rights, the more important question was whether the administration should humor their demands for emotional protection?and, in doing so, deprive other students, faculty members, and the Christakises of their free speech rights.”

    And there it is, folks, swing and a miss!

    Protecting free speech isn’t important if the speech is against free speech?

    I wonder if Robby thinks Nazis are entitled to First Amendment protection for their speech.

    No one should be free to use speech to violate someone’s rights through fraud or violent threats, etc., just like the Second Amendment doesn’t protect the right to rob someone with a gun, but, no, Robby . . .

    Apart from the question of whether someone’s rights were violated, whether speech is ultimately used for good or evil purposes is not a more important question than whether the right to free speech is being violated.

    1. I don’t know of any libertarians who disagree about this.

      When Reason sends fund-raising materials out to John Stagliano, I bet they don’t include a copy of this article. Reason’s free speech expert doesn’t seem to understand the basics of free speech.

    2. Ken, Ken, Ken…

      You really should have read the entire article then taken a moment to think about it before commenting.

    3. That makes no sense, Ken. Nowhere does he suggest that the students demanding that the administration do something about speech they don’t like should be silenced.

      1. They’re using ‘free speech’ as a means to silence others free speech.

        How hard is that to understand?

        No one should be able to use the justification of free speech while advocating eliminating others free speech.

        1. No one should be able to use the justification of free speech while advocating eliminating others free speech.

          That doesn’t make any sense either. Unless by “be able to” you mean able to handle the cognitive dissonance. You can use the justification of free speech to advocate whatever you want, even if it’s evil or makes no sense. That’s what “free” means.

          So what you are you saying? That people who use their speech to call for others to be censored should be silenced? Or just ignored? Your phrasing “no one should be able to” suggests to me that you want to use force to stop them, but I’ll happily be corrected on that count.

          1. The problem is not that they advocate punishing the speech of others, it is that the schools give in to them by uninviting speakers, punishing professors, etc.

  16. Is nobody going to leap on the use of “prerequisite” instead of “perquisite”? And Robby doubled down on it. I tremble for the future of our great nation! It begs the question of who is teaching these people vocabulary words!

    1. Huh. I learned a new word today. Cool. Didn’t know what “perquisite” was.

      But now that I do, it reads like Robby assumed they meant “prerequisite” (albeit in a very awkward phrase) as in “free speech is a prerequisite for being rich and powerful”. Or maybe he didn’t know “perquisite” was a word either.

      1. “Perquisites” gets shortened to “perks” for people who get them confused with “prerequisites”.

    2. Comments like this really beg the question of who’s teaching our Internet commentariat logical fallacies.

      1. i personally could care less

        1. I can and almost certainly should care less.

          1. if that was making fun of a commonly misused phrase, i missed it.

  17. As historian and Yale College dean Jonathan Holloway asked in an interview with PEN America: “Whose speech matters enough to be defended?”

    Here’s another question. Who’s running the fucking asylum; the lunatics or the staff? There is or should be a clearly delineated distinction (dare I say “power relationship”?) between teachers and teachees. If Dean Holloway is unable to grasp this distinction, the trustees would be well advised to commence a search for someone better suited to the position.

  18. Is nobody going to leap on the use of “prerequisite” instead of “perquisite”?

    Sorry- that would require actually reading the thing.

    1. That’s one of the perks of knowing what “perquisites” are…

  19. I want to say it was an NYT article

    Yes. There was a surprisingly good (and amusing) NYT article about alumni who are sitting on their wallets because they are sick of teh “PC”.

  20. “I find it hard to read [the report’s] extraordinarily powerful depiction of things that have happened on campus without concluding there is a crisis of great magnitude.”
    They are merely “extremely careless” in their conclusion. (the new standard of the left in permitting left-wing-only activity that is criminal)

  21. Let’s not assume the professor’s resignation of several positions was entirely voluntary. If not, then yes, the li’l SJW goons and their administrative enablers have gone beyond merely exercising free speech, no?

    1. The administrators certainly have.

  22. I’m scared. Are we all going to die?

  23. I think its odd that the incident most often cited about “free speech” @ yale is that screaming-fit on the quad

    Its not really anything to do with any challenges about ‘speech rights’ at all. Its just a professor humoring some batshit hypersensitive students who display no ability to do the whole “dialogue”-thing

    the incident that probably deserves more attention was the event where Greg Lukianoff was asked to speak at a private event on campus (along with others)… and had students basically sneak-in and try and shut down their talk by protesting.

    this wasn’t a case where students were being ‘offended’ by ideas (or Halloween costumes) in the public sphere – the students objected to the idea that anyone *could even discuss the topic of free-speech* in private.

    Unlike the quad-yak, there was no video, so unfortunately was less ‘viral’. It was covered in multiple places tho… like here and here

    During a conference on “The Future of Free Speech” Friday evening hosted by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, student activists became incensed by a comment made by one of the speakers that was posted on social media, leading them to converge on the auditorium in an effort to disrupt the event, The Yale Daily News reports.

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