Universities must help halt campus censorship

Students are leading the fightback against campus illiberalism and the Identity Politics takeover with almost no support from professors and university administrators. No wonder they are having limited success.

As I noted last week in a worrying development, even some of those students who are now making the news for opposing the most authoritarian clampdowns on free speech on their campuses turn out to support the idea of safe spaces, trigger warnings and No Platforming in principle. In other words, their problem is not with censorship per se, but merely a quibble over its overenthusiastic application.

Latest case in point, this student from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, who ruined a perfectly good protest about campus speech codes and draconian restrictions on free speech by conceding the broader point about the necessity of Safe Spaces.

From the Manitou Messenger:

On March 29, subscribers to St. Olaf Extra received an email from Anders Wahlberg ’17 in which he expressed his frustrations with St. Olaf ’s “incredibly broad and overreaching” policies regarding speech on campus and “the ridiculous concept of safe spaces.” Wahlberg closed the email with a call to other students who feel similarly to join his student organization, which “will offend people” and “will violate the sanctity of St. Olaf’s safe spaces.”

Within days of the email being sent out, Nikki Lewis ’18, Udeepta Chakravarty ’17 and Cynthia Zapata ’16 organized a rally in response. The rally was held in the quad on April 1 during chapel time and drew many students despite the cold temperatures. Both the organizers and representatives from safe spaces on campus spoke to the crowd.

“It’s always very hard when marginalized students on campus are trying so hard to make it clear that there’s issues at St. Olaf, and then emails like that go out,” Lewis said, “with so little regard to the fact that a lot of students on campus are subjected to hate speech and sometimes even hate crimes on this campus. So just sending out an email like that, what are you thinking?”

[..] Wahlberg’s email indicated that it wasn’t that safe spaces should be attacked, but that the mentality of safe spaces has not been contained in those safe spaces.

“By all means there should be safe spaces on campus. But making the entire campus a safe space is a threat to academic discussion and places people’s feelings above free speech. I don’t think there is a single issue that is ‘above debate.’ Classrooms, above all else, should not be safe spaces,” Wahlberg said.

In other words, limit free speech and infantilise students as much as you like on campus as a whole, just don’t do it within the classroom.

We should, perhaps, see the positive side in this. At least the student, Anders Wahlberg, appears to be motivated out of a strong and genuine concern for academic freedom. But tolerating any kind of exclusionary safe space where speech is restricted is inevitably the thin end of the wedge – conceding the principle of safe spaces means that the fight for free speech will ultimately be fought at the threshold of our own liberty.

Of course, one does not know the full extent to which potentially enormous social pressures force students to moderate or in some instances completely suppress their criticism of draconian speech codes, No Platform policies and other infantilising measures. It could be that Wahlberg would like to do away with Safe Spaces altogether, but knows that he would face total social ostracisation to the extent that speaking out fully is impossible.

And if so, who can really blame him? With very few honourable exceptions, most university administrations are running terrified of their student populations, falling over themselves to apologise and grant perks and concessions for the supposed injustices committed on their watch, almost before the Stepford Students themselves have had time to get into full outrage mode.

If I were a student today I like to think that I would take a vociferous, absolutist stance on free speech – but I would be under no illusion that the university hierarchy would have my back.

Cowardly concession after cowardly concession has shown that in a desperate final attempt at appeasement, many university administrations are happy to throw their allied supporters of academic freedom and free speech under the bus to buy a few more months of peace and quiet from their restive student populations.

It is always heartening to see students push back against attempts to infantilise them and limit their freedoms. But we are kidding ourselves if we believe that years of accumulated authoritarian and censorious policies can be overturned without the active participation of the academic establishment – dragged out kicking and screaming in support of academic freedom, if necessary.


Samuel Hooper is a journalist and blogger. He is passionate about politics, free markets and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter here

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