On Monday, The Weekly Standard reported that a professor at Princeton University canceled a class on freedom of expression. The professor, Lawrence Rosen, didn’t say why, but it probably had something to do with the outraged students who reportedly walked out of his class last week when he used the N-word during a discussion of whether hate speech should be protected.
According to a report in the campus newspaper, Rosen asked his students, “Which is more provocative: A white man walks up to a black man and punches him in the nose, or a white man walks up to a black man and calls him a n****r?” One student told TWS that when Rosen said this, a student of color approached him and, inches from his face, shouted, “F-ck you!” while a female student of color shouted at Rosen, “Do you feel safe right now?”
Rosen is an award-winning legal anthropologist who has taught at Princeton for 40 years. The course in question, “Anthropology 212: Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography,” is one that Rosen has taught many times. In a letter to the student paper defending Rosen, the chair of Princeton’s anthropology department, Carolyn Rouse, said that “Rosen has used the same example year after year. This is the first year he got the response he did from the students.”
That students would react differently this year, writes Rouse, “is diagnostic of the level of overt anti-black racism in the country today.” When Obama was president, “the example seemed less real and seemed to have less power.” But now that Trump’s in office, students can’t bear to hear the N-word uttered out loud—even in a class about free expression and censorship, and even when it’s used as an example of hate speech.
At Stanford, Emotion Trumps Free Speech
With apologies to Rouse, I have a different theory about why Princeton students reacted differently to Rosen this year. It’s not that racism in America is worse now than it was two years ago (although race relations did notably decline during Obama’s tenure, according to public opinion polling). It’s not that they couldn’t understand the point of their professor’s exercise. It’s because we’ve been conditioning students to have a Pavlovian reaction of blind outrage to offensive words and ideas.
Hearing the N-word spoken out loud triggers an emotional meltdown, but so does a simple policy disagreement. Consider a recent controversy at Stanford University over student fliers on immigration. In December, a student posted a flier on her door advertising a hotline to report any local activity of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The flier was torn down and replaced with one that said, “#BuildTheWall.”
It happened again in January, which prompted a trio of students, Araceli Alicia Garcia, Mayahuel Victoria Ramírez, and Jessica Reynoso, to print out 200 yellow fliers bearing the hotline number and post them throughout the dormitory. The fliers read, “Protect our community, report ICE activity.”
In response, another student, Isaac Kipust, decided to satirize the fliers and posted his own, which read: “Protect our community, report legitimate law enforcement activity! Call to receive immediate support if you see law enforcement authorities doing their job. Beloved community criminals deserve protection from Trump’s tyranny.”
The fliers were promptly taken down by order of the university. In an op-ed for the student newspaper, Kipust described his meeting with several school officials—including an associate dean of students who’s in charge of Stanford’s policies on “acts of intolerance”—along with Garcia, Ramírez, and Reynoso:
According to them, my flyers were ‘hate speech’ and hence inappropriate for the Kimball community. Because they apparently mocked a flyer protecting an identity group, they constituted an act of intolerance. Most egregiously, because of their effect on the three crying students at the table, I was not permitted to repost my flyers.
Kipust goes on to say that he wasn’t motivated to post the fliers by strong views about immigration, but by the principle of free speech:
Immigration policy isn’t something I’m passionate or especially informed about. My flyer definitely wasn’t the smartest or most eloquent argument I’ve ever made. But luckily for me and people of varying levels of intelligence everywhere, the First Amendment protects strong and weak arguments equally. One day, though, I might want to express a controversial opinion about something that actually mattered to me, and I wanted to ensure my right to express it at Stanford. I was determined to fight for every Stanford student’s right to share their opinions in any manner they wish.
In a meeting with Kipust, the lead residence dean at Stanford conceded that the university was wrong to take down his fliers. No doubt the dean was urged toward this conclusion by a letter from law professor Michael W. McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at the Stanford Law School, who noted that the removal of Kipust’s fliers was a “blatant example of viewpoint discrimination” and a violation of Stanford’s own policies and California state law. “If the university does not promptly reverse the decision of the dorm administrators and redress this situation,” wrote McConnell, “there is a serious risk of legal liability as well as public embarrassment to the university.”
This Isn’t Just a Problem With Our Colleges
The Princeton and Stanford cases are merely representative examples of a growing trend at colleges across the country. Instead of engaging in reasoned debate with those who espouse ideas they loathe, many college students have no interest in defending their views—and school officials are enabling them.
Activist students and faculty alike regularly argue that hate speech, as they define it, is the same as violence, and that conservative speakers are complicit in the violence that sometimes ensues when they try to speak on college campuses. Hence the recent spectacle at the University of Chicago, where an immigrant professor wanted to debate Steve Bannon—and Bannon accepted—but students and faculty are protesting, claiming that Bannon’s mere presence on campus puts minority students in danger.
Although there’s no question our colleges and universities have become hostile to free expression, it’s wrong to suppose that the problem begins and ends on campus. Middle and high school students today are being taught that censorship in the name of political correctness and social justice is okay. Last week in eastern Minnesota, the Duluth School District announced it would drop “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the district’s required reading list for English classes next year. Officials said the move is part of an effort to be more considerate of students of color, and since both of the books in question use the N-word, well, you get the idea.
Duluth isn’t the only school district to go this route. Last year, a school district in Mississippi pulled “To Kill A Mockingbird” from its eighth-grade reading list because “it makes people uncomfortable.” Never mind that Harper Lee’s depiction of racism and prejudice in 1930s Alabama is meant to make readers feel uncomfortable, or that the entire thrust of her classic novel is an indictment of the mistreatment and segregation of blacks in the South prior to the civil rights movement.
All of this is lost on students whose teachers and professors are systematically robbing them of the chance to grapple with the darker episodes in our nation’s history, or debate the complex political and policy questions of our time, or even confront the opinions and arguments of those with whom they disagree.
That’s not just how you get outraged Princeton students or sobbing Stanford undergrads. That’s also how, later in life, you get a press corps that’s willing to fawn over a totalitarian despot at the Olympics just to make Vice President Mike Pence look bad. Or reporters who will feign outrage at an utterly commonplace term just because Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the one who said it. Or a Democratic presidential nominee who describes half of her opponent’s supporters as racist “deplorables” who are “irredeemable” and “not America.”
In other words, if you want to train a generation of Americans to dehumanize and demonize their political opponents, start by conditioning them to hate free speech.