At what point does free speech become dangerous?
That's the question being raised by a passionate group of student activists at Wesleyan University, the elite Connecticut college embroiled in a controversial debate over freedom of the press and Black Lives Matter.
In September, Wesleyan student Bryan Stascavage penned an op-ed in the student newspaper the Wesleyan Argus that called the Black Lives Matter movement's ethics and methods into question, linking its rise in popularity to the killing of police officers across the country in recent months. The article garnered enormous criticism across Wesleyan, a college with a vibrant left-wing community and rich history of activism.
But then something happened on campus that went beyond the usual kind of gossip and grandstanding that transpires when someone expresses a deeply unpopular political opinion. A group of student activists banded together and wrote a petition calling for readers to boycott the newspaper that published the article and for the the student government to defund the paper.
"The undersigned agree to boycott the Argus, recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body," the petition states. "Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future."
The petition caught the attention of national media and swiftly became a lightning rod for criticism. A number of left-wing commentators slammed the petition as the quintessence of an emerging ideological trend reshaping liberalism today, one that a number of academics and even the president have criticized as the coddling of the American mind. They say the growing fashionability of ideas like safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and the like can have the effect of censorship and threaten free discourse in academia — and beyond.
But the students who agitated for the newspaper to be defunded say that the invocation of "freedom of speech" can be at odds with safety for marginalized peoples, ignores historical dynamics of power and should not be considered of greater importance than inclusiveness. Insofar as they immediately won over support from their student government and concessions from the Argus, it appears that their tactics are working.
"We do not have the time, nor luxury, to be caught up in this smokescreen of free speech."
Free speech as a "smoke screen": After the op-ed on Black Lives Matter was published, a number of students who were part of a Facebook group for students of color at Wesleyan discussed the controversial article online and decided that a line had been crossed, according to Tedra James, one of the co-authors of the petition. Something had to be done.
So the students came up with a petition demanding that the newspaper concede to a special list of demands or face defunding. The demands included, according to the Argus, a monthly report on allocation of funds and leadership structure, a required "social justice/diversity training" for members of the publication and a space on the front page explicitly devoted to marginalized groups, to be filled with the words "for your voice" should no submissions be received.
The idea, James said in an interview with Mic, was not to necessarily to destroy the newspaper, but to use such a threat as a pressure tactic.
"We thought we could go the way of taking away the money so that we could put pressure on the Argus to make themselves equitable and inclusive," she said. "The plan was never to just completely dismantle them as a paper — we all knew that would be impossible — but the goal was that if we got enough signatures, it would be an impetus for saying, 'This many people don't want to read this paper.'"
In an an open letter to the Wesleyan community meant to be published in the Argus, a draft of which was shared with Mic by some of the students who rallied behind the petition, the petitioners respond to public outcry by characterizing the free speech debate as a distraction from pressing concerns — communities of color under siege by police — and from long-standing problems, such as institutional racism that they say exists at Wesleyan and even the newspaper itself.
"We do not have the time, nor luxury, to be caught up in this smokescreen of free speech," the letter reads. "This is not an issue of your free speech. This is an issue of our voices being silenced, our communities under attack."
The letter goes on to indict Argus as an institution "with a history of devaluing people of color." James says that a number of students and alumni felt that the Black Lives Matter article is simply the straw that broke the camel's back.
"This is not the first time people have been upset with the Argus. It has been literally decades of the same thing," James said. "This is simply an impetus for something that has been necessary for a while, which is why we tried to restructure the Argus as an institution."
The petitioners' basis for labeling the Argus an agent of oppression and exclusion is unclear. The newspaper publishes a wide range of opinions, and any student on campus can submit an op-ed to the paper (some alumni have said that it's nearly too easy to have virtually any kind of article published). The Argus currently has students of color in both staff and leadership positions on the business and editorial sides, according to Gabe Rosenberg, the paper's executive editor.
The idea of "equitable and inclusive" institutions, and taking proactive measures to achieve them, has enormous sway at Wesleyan. In the past year, the Wesleyan Student Assembly, the university's student government, was entirely restructured in response to criticism that it was not nearly inclusive enough of marginalized students. Every student group that it funds must also be considered equitable and inclusive. When the petition was brought before the WSA at a Sunday meeting, a number of the assembly's members were sympathetic and took the funding questions seriously.
"Aidan and I ran last spring on the platform of bringing equity and inclusion to the very core of the WSA and furthermore, to every part of campus," WSA president Kate Cullen and WSA vice president Aidan Martinez wrote in an email to the Argus. "In this vein, we are supportive of the push for a more equitable and inclusive Argus ... We hope that the cries for change from the students of color community will move the Argus' leadership to action."
Indeed it did.
The newspaper's response: The Argus immediately responded to the grievances and went about publishing its funding allocations and taking measures to call for new writers (something they do routinely, but which took on a more focused tone after the petition).
Rosenberg, the executive editor, said in an interview with Mic that there are now plans to hire an editor explicitly devoted to equity and inclusion. This editor would oversee the opinion section and actively curate it so as to ensure a wide variety of voices. Rosenberg explained that while he's always been concerned with taking measures to boost diversity at the paper, the act of getting the student government involved concerned him.
"The newspaper doesn't want student government interference in any which way — we don't particularly trust the student government to stay consistent," Rosenberg told Mic. "No one in the student government seems to realize the precedent that controlling editorial content in one publication sets for the rest of the campus, or even taking away funding might set. So we're trying to have our own conversation."
One striking feature of the whole episode is that Rosenberg is in fact largely supportive of many of the ideas that inspired the petition, and considers the criticism of increased "sensitivity on campuses" to be "very condescending to students." He considers concerns about inclusivity and safety to be important. But he disagrees with the measures that were taken to try to impose them in light of his efforts to reach out to writers of various backgrounds in the past.
"How can your voice be represented in the Argus if you refuse to allow the Argus record your voice?" Rosenberg said. "There's a self-defeating paradox in there that's sort of troubling, and when we're actually trying to make these changes, it feels like no one wants to work with us."
Wesleyan's college administration has criticized the petition, describing it as a mandate for censorship.
"Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn't mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable," university president Michael Roth and two other university administrators wrote in a blog post as the controversy was erupting. "As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended."
Larger than Wesleyan: The debate at Wesleyan is significant because in many ways it distills a broader pattern of thought that has been the subject of endless debate among liberals and leftists about identity politics in recent years, one which shows no signs of fading.
One major theme to unpack is the idea that marginalized people's safety is at risk when they encounter words that are prejudiced (or are stemming from institutions that are complicit in cycles of prejudice) or hateful. But in the U.S., there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. There is such thing as speech that isn't constitutionally protected, such as "fighting words" — words that indicate the intention to immediately start an altercation — or stating the intention to doing something illegal in certain scenarios. As of now, advocates for curtailing language that creates the sensation of danger or discomfort have yet to make a compelling case for why racist or reactionary rhetoric would fit into those categories.
Many advocates for safe spaces, trigger warnings and the like argue that aggressively dismissing certain kinds of speech is not meant to restrict free speech per se, but is an activist vehicle intended to produce more enlightened discourse. But labeling certain kinds of speech as unacceptable in a society that revels in vibrant and confrontational discourse routinely produces more enemies than allies — witness the vicious criticism of the petitioners from countless commenters who in fact agree their ultimate goal of creating social equality.
More consequentially, this kind of activism does have the effect of chilling speech in some scenarios. In recent years, university administrators have intervened in the classroom and campus affairs with increasing frequency in response to forceful complaints about insensitive ideas and language. As people graduate from elite institutions like Wesleyan in this climate and begin to play an even greater role in shaping society, it's worth thinking about how their attitudes toward speech could affect public discourse in the long run.