Last night I was supposed to participate in a panel at my alma mater, American University, on feminism, free speech, and Title IX. My co-panelists were to include a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the current head of a group that fights for students' rights, and two staffers from the British website spiked—not what you might think would be a controversial lineup. But in the days leading up to the event, the AU chapter of American Association of University Women organized a campaign to "Keep Our Campus Safe," describing the panel as "hate speech" and "violence" designed to undermine "decades of work... to make campuses safer for victims of sexual violence."
The panel was put together by spiked as part of its "Unsafe Space" tour, which will visit several U.S. campuses and include such figures as Laura Kipnis and Jonathan Haidt (along with Reason's Robby Soave). The event on American's D.C. campus was to kick off the tour, with me, spiked's Ella Whelan, former ACLU chief Nadine Strossen, and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education director Robert Shibley on a panel moderated by spiked Deputy Editor Tom Slater.
Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) was the student group hosting the event, and was in charge of making arrangements with the campus. An auditorium had been secured since summer, but a few days before the event AU administrators told YAL that the space was no longer available and then that the panel had to be canceled altogether.
Annamarie Rienzi, D.C. chair of YAL and one of the student organizers of last night's event, told me that the school claimed it came down to YAL classifying the panel as a "meeting" rather than an "event." But this is standard practice for YAL and other student groups, she says, when a talk or panel does not involve bringing paid speakers to campus or providing refreshments.
Whether the cancellation was strictly about this policy or motivated by other concerns is not something I'm interested in parsing here. The event went on, albeit in a smaller and much less collegiate location: Reason's D.C. office. Luckily we were able to open our space to the event at the last minute; thanks to a Learn Liberty livestream, you can watch the whole thing below.
Overall, it's a thoroughly tame event, albeit one that fostered some good discussion with students who had trekked from AU's campus to the Reason office. We talked about how Title IX proceedings are often assumed to only involve sexual assault, though they encompass a range of other areas that can have nothing to do with sexual activity or violence, and that can seriously jeopardize academic freedom and (often liberal) professors' livelihoods. Whelan talked about how Title IX proceedings and the general sexual climate on campus can infantilize female students and take women's progress a step backward.
Shibley argued that Title IX had had many positive accomplishments before it was, only recently, expanded to its current form under the Obama administration. We all stressed how rolling back some of the Obama era's approach to Title IX won't lessen the law's significance as a tool against sex discrimination—and won't stop the momentum toward reforming campus sexual assault policies—but will discourage schools and the government from weaponizing it in weird ways.
I talked about how it's the feds, much more than any minority of illiberal students, who are forcing campuses into absurd "safe spaces." The media spend too much time blaming "campus feminists" or leftist student groups for Title IX's worst excesses when the real culprits are government bureaucrats and schools scared to cross them. Colleges would rather crack down on any potential liabilities—i.e., anything anyone complains about—rather than face steep fines or lose the ability to participate in federal student-loan programs.
The audience of students and non-students asked thoughtful questions. Afterward the panelists all hung around for a while and chatted with students eager to share their own thoughts. Not everyone was on the same wavelength about Title IX completely, but there were no progressive protesters or ranting men's rights activists. It was hardly an anti-feminist space, nor a spectacle of the Milo "free speech event" type. It's a shame that more students at American didn't get a chance to come, judge the panel for themselves, and directly voice their perspectives and concerns.
It was especially disappointing to learn today that this may have been provoked by a women's student group severely misrepresenting the event and then urging students to be angry about it. Here's how the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of AU described the spiked panel:
The Unsafe Space Tour is coming to AU. What do they want to talk about? Completely revising and undoing decades of work by activists around campuses across the country to make campuses safer for victims of sexual violence.
The group did suggest that students confine their protest to Q&A time. But then, after linking to the event page, it added:
A note on First Amendment rights to free speech: AAUW at AU fully supports free speech. This does not mean we support forcing marginalized students to hate speech and other forms of violence and trauma.
In the days leading up to the panel, the AAUW of AU Facebook lobbed several misguided outrage missiles at it. "Title IX is not a threat to free speech. So why is spiked so threatened by it?" one asked.
As proof of folks being "threatened," the group quoted a bit from spiked about the event in general (not Title IX) on how its intention in invoking "safe spaces" wasn't to provoke aimlessly but to spark discussion and debate—"to the end of understanding what is going on, drawing out the radical, humanist case for free speech, and convincing students of why every college should be an Unsafe Space."
We are STOKED to announce that the Unsafe Space Tour has been canceled at AU! In their words, they, "got word of resistance from some campus groups." Good riddance! Thank you to everyone who expressed interest in [the "Keep Our Campus Safe" counter-event] and spoke out.
Here's the "trauma"-inducing "hate speech" they missed out on:
This piece has been updated to reflect that Camille Paglia is no longer scheduled to speak as part of the tour.
Photo Credit: American Association of University Women at AU