Stand Up to the Campus Bullies

It's not easy to speak up on behalf of a colleague under face-to-face attack from students, but we must do so to defend our free speech, argues Jonathan Zimmerman.

February 19, 2018

You know who you are.

You cringed as you read about the attacks earlier this month on Princeton University anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen, who was denounced for using the N-word in a class on hate speech and blasphemy. Then you read that Rosen had canceled the class. And then you said, here we go again.

But only to yourself. You didn’t have the guts to go public with your concerns, either on social media or in face-to-face discussions. Why risk the vilification that Rosen received? It’s so much easier to sigh, roll your eyes and move on.

Score one for the bullies. And that’s the real subtext to the shaming of Lawrence Rosen, and of other similar episodes around the country. On questions of free speech, our campuses are deeply divided. But only one side typically speaks up, while the other keeps quiet.

Consider the controversial Brookings Institution poll from last summer, in which 51 percent of surveyed students agreed that it was acceptable for a student group to shout down a speaker “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” That meant 49 percent disagreed, of course.

The survey is questionable, as it was opt-in, and so there's no assurance that the sample was representative. And the fraction of students who object to shouting down an offensive speaker is most likely higher than that, because the Brookings study was conducted right after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. That probably skewed the results in favor of shouting down offensive speech; in normal times, we’d expect to find more students on the other side. They just don’t raise their own voices as loudly, if at all.

And that’s apparently what happened in Rosen’s classroom. Introducing the course, Rosen asked whether it would be worse for a white man to punch a black man or to call the African-American the N-word. When a student asked him if he would continue to use that term, in full, he said he would do so when he felt it was “necessary.”

Several students walked out of the class, according to those who were there. But one student shouted at Rosen, asking whether he felt “safe right now,” then another stood up, inches from Rosen’s face, and shouted an obscenity.

But here’s the most important detail, which has gotten lost in most of the coverage of this ugly contretemps: from all reports, the rest of the students sat on their hands. As one witness recalled, “Nobody except Rosen defended Rosen.” Nor have any other published accounts described students coming to their professor’s defense. Surely, there were people in the class -- which, again, was focused on hate speech -- who believed it was legitimate for Rosen to use the N-word in a discussion about the themes of the course. They apparently just kept that opinion to themselves.

And that rendered them "complicit" in the incident, to borrow a popular buzzword from today's political lexicon. They were silent partners in the humiliation of Lawrence Rosen. And they should be ashamed about that.

But not as ashamed as professors, especially those who fashion themselves as champions of free speech. Last September, for example, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a joint statement denouncing the “harassment” of faculty members for controversial comments made in public speeches, social media and the classroom.

The statement was occasioned by attacks upon Syracuse University communications professor Dana Cloud, who tweeted negatively about a protest called March Against Sharia. After right-wing activists called for her dismissal, the faculty organizations rallied to her side.

“Free speech is and will remain one of our key values,” declared Syracuse University president Kent Syverud, in a comment that the joint statement quoted. “Our faculty must be able to say and write things -- including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable -- up to the very limits of the law.”

So where were the faculty voices rising up to defend Lawrence Rosen? For the most part, they’ve gone silent. It’s a lot easier to defend a professor who’s being trolled by Islamophobes on the internet than it is to speak up on behalf of a colleague under face-to-face attack from students, especially if you might have to face their wrath down the road.

To be fair, Rosen’s department chair issued a strong statement in support of his right to free speech. So did Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber.

And on a few other campuses, students and faculty members have begun to challenge the campus bullies. A Reed College professor who was shouted down during a required freshman humanities course last fall published an ardent retort in The Washington Post, denouncing protesters for intimidating her and other faculty members. And in a video that went viral, students in the same course stood up to defend their professors and to demand that the protesters sit down.

Indeed, there are rumblings of a new nationwide student movement in favor of free speech. That was the rallying cry of student activists in the 1960s, of course, starting with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. And last May, students from 20 colleges around the country met in Chicago to try to revive the tradition.

“A central purpose of education is to teach students to challenge themselves and engage with opposing perspectives,” the group declared. “The only way to achieve this is by cultivating a culture where all are free to communicate without fear of censorship and intimidation.”

The Princeton students who reviled Lawrence Rosen borrowed the same language, insisting that his words intimidated them. But they are the real bullies, of course. And, like bullies everywhere, they seek to scare everyone else into submission.

Enough already. Just as the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing, as Burke taught us, the only thing necessary for the triumph of censorship is for the rest of us to keep quiet. Speak up, people. Our freedom of speech depends on it.


Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press).


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