This week, thanks to a titillating story about Berkeley students managing to scare Ann Coulter off, we’ve been treated to a media narrative about the sorry state of American academia. The story goes that intolerant liberals who don’t want to hear a robust discourse are entirely to blame. It’s such a thorny and tantalizing issue that I offered students in two of my classes at American University the opportunity to write final papers about it. Their mission: Deal with the competing imperatives of the First Amendment and a meaningful, academically enriching experience for all students. Are there limits on speech, I asked. And then my favorite question, as a lawyer: “Where would you draw the line?”
And then, on the eve of exam period. some despicable person chose to hang bananas on nooses at three locations on our campus.
The following is a Facebook post I shared with students yesterday in response to the event:
To my students:
This is where I draw the line. Lynching. A simple rule, elegant, easy to apply. I draw the line here.
If you don’t want to read this; if you’re already telling yourself it’s inappropriate for you to hear it from a professor, then you need to read it. It’s directed point blank at you.
I don’t believe in the term “hate speech.” It’s meaningless constitutionally and useless as a community standard. I don’t need to believe in hate speech (whatever that might mean to one person or another) to draw the line here and say unequivocally that whoever hung nooses on our campus lost their right to be at American University.
This was a nod to domestic terrorism, to the bloody century of lynchings that began when black bodies ceased to have monetary value to white people. You’re not required to learn much history at AU, and your high school curricula are squeamishly constructed to track a straight path from Homer Plessy to Barack Obama.
That is not the path our nation took. Our nation took a path through forests at night, lit by torches, dragging black human beings past the treeline, torturing them and hauling them back into the light, to be hanged and left as billboards for their families to see.
Our nation took a path down main streets to jail cells where law enforcement handed black people over to be slaughtered by mobs, while white people cheered.
If you think whoever hung those nooses― after a black woman was elected student body president and during the most high-stakes period in the academic year― does not know what a noose means, you need to walk a straight line back to advising and register for a U.S. history class. That will have to do; we don’t have an African-American Studies department― only a minor and a planned major.
Do not walk a straight line to your black friends and ask them to explain. I think we should be ready, as adults, to agree that there’s been quite enough free black labor in this country already. Your black friends are studying for exams in the shadow of 100 years of lynchings, of a classmate who taunted them with a symbol of blood and fire and brutality.
If you have turned your nose up at “safe spaces,” and mocked your classmates’ years-long campaigns to get this university to draw a line, then you are blissfully unaware of how much safer a space you’ve occupied your whole life. How much safer this campus is for you. Your right to do that ends here. Stare it down. Buy the book “100 Years of Lynchings.” Make yourself look at the pictures. Make yourself imagine having a family story, handed down in hushed tones, about pictures like that. Crimes like that.
Do it during exam period. Some in our community don’t have the choice to look away. Why should you?
Dissents are not law, as I have reminded you in margin comments for years. But I direct your attention to Justice Thomas’s dissent in Virginia v. Black. As we all know what a burning cross means, we all know what a noose means. At a private school like AU, we have the power to draw a line there and build a wall on it. No one who crosses that line has any place here. I believe that. At a quarter century your senior, I know it.
If you didn’t like reading this, read it again. Report me to whomever you want if you’d like, but do so only after you formulate a persuasive, one-sentence theory about how reading this essay put you in danger of being treated unfairly, of being unsafe, as an AU student. Only do it after you’ve persuaded yourself you could look a black classmate in the eye and tell them. But don’t do the latter. Enough time and energy has been stolen already. You’ll have to walk this line alone.
If you are one of those whom this vile incident targeted, by now you know I don’t know what to say to you. Can I say I’m heartbroken? That would mean saying I didn’t know what’s out there, every day. It’s an insult to daily experience. I’m knocked flat, for what it’s worth.
And I’m here. I’ll hold a get together if you’d like, off campus at my marginally-tidy home. Or if you’d like to study here, email me. It’s quiet. There’s coffee.
If this person or persons who did this are identified, I’m going to vocally call for them to be removed from the AU community. As a private college, we have the power to go this far― even if we couldn’t prove this was a true threat in First Amendment sense.
I’ve no idea what our university will do. I’m exhausted from watching people tiptoe around the obvious, before November and since. I’ve very little influence, sitting in my inaccessible corner of campus, dreaming up ways to frustrate you in class. But I am here, I’m mad as hell, and I am most definitely taking sides on this one.