Five Free Speech Controversies In A Hostile Political Climate

African American graduate students celebrate completing their academic programs at Harvard University.
African American graduate students celebrate completing their academic programs at Harvard University.

I am a left-leaning college professor, one of those “tenured radicals” who have been targeted by conservatives as dangerous to the minds of young people, although I am not prominent enough to make most of their enemies lists. I “reported” myself to the rightwing Professor Watchlist figuring they had mistakenly omitted me, but I was never added.

In 2008 Bill O’Reilly called me a “looney liberal” when I was a guest on “The O’Reilly Factor.” I may be looney, but I don’t really consider myself a “liberal.” I have a running feud with Senator Charles Schumer who was very unhappy when I criticized his support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In an interview in The American Prospect, Chuck accused me and the “hard left” of “moral elitism.”

I am a strong supporter of free speech, academic freedom, and due process. These principles make it possible for teachers me to remain in the classroom and to publish our views in an increasingly hostile national climate. In other countries I would have been silenced, maybe imprisoned, a long time ago.

In this context I comment on five recent free speech controversies. Who knows? Maybe this will undermine my leftist “creds” or finally get me on a rightwing list.

1. Cultural Appropriation: The New York Times ran an op-ed by British author and scientist Kenan Malik defending what he called “cultural appropriation.” In the essay, Malik defended the right of artists, commentators, and academics to depict and comment on the cultures of other people, particularly the right of White artists, commentators, and academics to create works that examine the lives and cultures of oppressed minorities. I wrote the Times, but it did not publish my response. Essentially I said Malik was wrong to defend “cultural appropriation,” which I understand means to claim to authentically and accurately represent the lives of people when you are not a member of their racial or ethic group. As a white male teacher and historian, I do not pretend to speak for any community. I write and teach about the enslavement of Africans in the United States and the struggle against slavery and for full human rights. Once, after a presentation to a high school class, I young African American woman thanked me for teaching about Black history, a subject that was rarely introduced in her school. I thanked her, but explained that I do not teach Black history. I teach American history, but I recognize that the history of Black people, their oppression and their struggles, is at the core of the history of the United States.

2. Contentious Campus Speakers: Free speech battles erupted at a number of American college campuses this academic year. Most center on student opposition to providing forums to invited rightwing speakers. A conservative group, Young America’s Foundation, and its campus supporters pushed for the speaking invitations and paid the speakers. Their goal is to provoke crises in an effort to embarrass universities, liberals, and free speech advocates. The foundation and its strategy are funded by very wealthy rightwing luminaries including the Koch brothers and the DeVos family.

I believe people who strongly disagree with me like “rightwing loonies” have a right to speak on college campuses. I also believe people who don’t like them have a right to protest outside. I’m from the Bronx, so inside, people who find their ideas offensive have the right to boo, just like their supports have the right to cheer. I would also place two conditions on the invitation. Speakers must be open to challenges at the forum by people who disagree with them and if they use hate speech in their presentations, the campus groups and students that invited them are responsible for their actions.

3. Harvard Admissions Revoked: Harvard University made the news when it went public that the university rescinded the admissions of at least ten students in the class of 2021 for exchanging on Facebook “sexually explicit memes” that mocked sexual assault and openly racist and anti-Semitic messages. They called their group “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” Harvard’s admissions policy permits the university to revoke a student’s acceptance if an applicant fails to graduate from high school, does poorly in their final semester, lied on their application, or engages in “morally questionable behavior.” But should morally questionable behavior” include stupid or offensive online activity? Don’t these kids have freedom of speech?

Yes, they have freedom of speech. No, that doesn’t mean Harvard is obligated to admit them. Part of the admission policy, whether right or wrong, is based on an essay where students are expected to demonstrate “Personal qualities—integrity, maturity, strength of character, and concern for others” and applicants are explicitly informed that these personal qualities “play an important part in our evaluations.” The group of ten violated these guidelines.

Once attending Harvard, students have due process rights. They must abide by “Standards of Conduct in the Harvard Community” that are outlined in the student handbook. These include the right to freedom of speech, but also protection against harassment and discrimination. Because the boundaries between freedom of speech and harassment and discrimination can be vague, the handbook explains disciplinary procedures and an accused student’s right to a fair hearing.

4. “Segregated Graduation Ceremonies”: This controversy also happened at Harvard, but similar “graduation ceremonies” were held at Emory in Virginia, Delaware, and Columbia, and they have been misrepresented in an effort to accuse Blacks and other minority groups of bigotry or of preferring segregation. Buried in an article in the New York Times I learned that while the Harvard ceremony for Black graduate students had a printed program, and incorporated the “pageantry, ritual and solemnity of traditional commencements,” it was a graduation event, not a graduation. Diplomas were distributed at the official university commencement two-days later that was attended by everyone. I wish Black students did not feel it was necessary to have a separate ceremony and if asked I would probably advise against it. But I respect their right to decide that it is something that they want, and as a faculty member, if invited, I would attend the ceremony in support.

5. Racially Offensive School Board Member: In December 2016 members of the Buffalo, New York school board accused elected board member Carl Paladino of racism and demanded that he resign. Paladino, a wealthy industrialist, former gubernatorial candidate, and ally of Donald Trump, admits that he made racially offensive comments about Barack and Michelle Obama. But he is now suing other Buffalo board members for defaming him and trying to suppress his freedom of speech. The state education department held a hearing on Paladino’s actions at the end of June and the commissioner has the legal right to remove him from his position. Paladino now wants the entire Buffalo Board of Education suspended

Paladino is offensive to the entire Buffalo school community and should never have been elected to a school board, but money buys power and influence. He has a right to freedom of speech, but not to remain on the Buffalo Board of Education as long as his due process rights are observed by the State Education Department.

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