CRYSTAL CITY, Va. -- "In the last five years, we’ve certainly have an increasing number of free speech confrontations on many campuses across the country," George Waldner, president emeritus of York College, said to a room full of nodding professors. "Halloween costumes at Yale, the 'Trump' chalkings at Emory University … There have probably been 30 or 40 of these [incidents] in the last five years."
Waldner was referring to the 2015 resignation of a Yale University lecturer who defended students' right to wear whatever Halloween costumes they wanted, and the controversy surrounding pro-Trump sidewalk chalk messages at Emory University in 2016. But more broadly, he was getting at issues of free speech. These controversies, and the freedom of speech questions that inevitably accompany them, were the focal point of numerous sessions at the American Association of University Professors 2018 conference. How do colleges accommodate diversity of thought while keeping their students safe? How do they protect against public relations crises without sacrificing freedom of speech? It was clear Thursday that the jury is still out.
Waldner argued that all colleges should have a written and legally reviewed policy that protects freedom of speech and outlines exactly what will happen if the policy is violated. Clear-cut guidelines can prevent such incidents from turning into reputation killers, or college presidents from losing their jobs, he said.
"If you’re the president of the institution and that institution has been damaged, what’s the easiest way for the Board of Trustees to resolve the issue? Fire the president," he said.
John Wilson, an editor of the AAUP's "Academe" blog, challenged Waldner's devotion to policy, arguing that it's administrators who commit the "overwhelming majority" of censorship on college campuses.
"There’s really never a connection between the expression of devotion to free expression, and actually free expression on a campus," he said. He continued to explain that the policies often contradict themselves, citing the University of Pennsylvania's responsibility of student citizenship clause in the Code of Student Conduct, which states that "responsible behavior includes but is not limited to the following obligations."
"Those six words -- 'includes but is not limited to' -- essentially destroys what would be an otherwise great policy," Wilson said.
During another session, three professors discussed what they said was a dire need for freedom of speech protections on increasingly liberal campuses. The words "safe spaces" and "marginalized students" were nowhere to be found.
Aaron Kindsvatter, an associate professor at the University of Vermont, opened by saying that free speech incidents are partly caused by a social justice "orthodoxy" that colleges are beginning to enforce.
“The most common vice I see on campus is social justice. Great idea, compelling idea, but it has been taken to extremes,” he said. “Terms that fall under the umbrella of social justice -- like diversity, inclusion, intersectional feminism -- have all become part of an orthodoxy.”
Louisa Hulett, a professor of political science, took the discussion out of Kindsvatter's abstract and to Knox College, where she teaches international relations. Since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, Hulett said, she has watched her campus become more and more intolerant of conservative viewpoints.
"At Knox, there’s much less tolerance for my view on campus, for the conservative view. There’s the dismissal for the perspective," she said, noting that Knox, in Illinois, hadn't brought in a conservative commencement speaker since the 1980s.
An audience member asked about extreme cases, and whether institutions strapped for resources should be shelling out money for the security needed to bring in Nazi sympathizers or Holocaust deniers. Some public institutions have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on such expenses. For example, the University of California, Berkeley spent upward of $800,000 on additional police presence when former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak in 2017. The panel responded with a unanimous yes.
"I think that it’s important for a Holocaust denier to stand up and really say what they think," Kindsvatter said.
In yet another session, Lindsay Briggs, an associate professor of health education at California State University Chico, and Lindsie Trego, a dual-degree law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, turned their attention to the student press and how the First Amendment can help or harm students. Briggs shared a personal story about standing up to protect queer students CSU Chico after the student-run newspaper, The Orion, published a series of inflammatory op-eds. Her criticisms of the op-eds resulted in a meeting with the college president, a Freedom of Information Act request for her university emails and death threats.
"I don’t think free speech is free for a lot of marginalized people. It comes at a substantial cost," Briggs said, urging the audience to think about why students should have to be subject to targeted, hateful speech.
"Unlimited tolerance is a paradox," she said. "We don’t have to tolerate the intolerant."