Free Speech Principles Suffer as Chronicle of Higher Education Fires Columnist

If you work anywhere near the higher education industry, as I do, then you’ve been deluged with press over The Chronicle of Higher Education’s dismissal of Naomi Schaefer Riley from its Brainstorm blog for her blog entry criticizing black studies departments. In case you haven’t been watching, though, the long and short of it is that Riley, in reaction to a Chronicle feature on the current generation of black studies Ph.D. students and their research, opined that some of the dissertations discussed in the article were evidence of the discipline’s partisanship and irrelevance.

Criticism of Riley’s piece from readers was immediate, voluminous, and vitriolic. Demand was loud for the column to be removed and for Riley to be fired. The Chronicle initially defended Riley, with editor Liz McMillen calling for readers to use the piece as an opportunity for debate rather than for censorship. Riley also responded to critics in a second Chronicle post. Within a few days, however, after thousands of complaints, mainly in the form of an online petition to fire her which now has gathered more than 6,500 signatures, the Chronicle caved.

McMillen wrote to readers that, after a more careful review, Riley’s column “did not meet The Chronicle's basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles,” and that as a result Riley had been dismissed.

The Chronicle, of course, had the right to fire her. Generally speaking, independent publications like the Chronicle can dismiss writers for almost any reason, or for no reason. They can fire bad writers for good reasons and good writers for bad reasons.

But this does not exempt the Chronicle’s decision from scrutiny. By all outward appearances the reasons for Riley’s firing are more bad than good, and the Chronicle’s defenses prompt more questions than they answer. Most damning, MediaBistro’s FishbowlDC blog shows that the Chronicle actually encouraged Riley’s provocative style. An orientation document given to Riley encouraged writers to use their platforms "not as forums for polished mini-editorials, but as places to react, thoughtfully but passionately, to breaking news on topics you’re engaged in[.]”

So what are the Chronicle’s “basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness” for bloggers, then? The publication’s quick capitulation under pressure suggests that they are nothing more than merely “that which our readership is able to tolerate.” (My colleague Robert Shibley pokes more holes in the Chronicle's newfound concern for fairness here.)

Again, the Chronicle is free to allow such fuzzy definitions to rule the day. But it has only itself to blame if its reputation suffers by sacrificing unfettered discourse for the sake of stage-managed civility. The publication’s response is particularly disappointing given its specialization and its highly educated readership. As Reason’s Nick Gillespie noted, “If the questions raised by Schaefer Riley's posts are outside the bounds of discussion at a blog about higher education, then why bother having even the semblance of a discussion?”

Riley can at least be thankful she’s not a college journalist within reach of a campus judiciary and its often-Kangaroo-Court proceedings. In the years I’ve worked at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, I’ve long since lost count of the number of times an iconoclastic article or column has resulted not only in the author's views being condemned (part of the give-and-take of journalism), but in students calling for the author or publication to be punished by the university for having expressed those views in the first place. Students may find themselves the subject of racial or sexual harassment complaints simply for voicing an unpopular opinion or offending the prevailing sensibilities of their fellow students. Satire (a subject I wrote about here previously) is at particular risk; for years, for example, the Tufts University conservative newspaper The Primary Source has had a finding of harassment on its record for its satirical criticisms of affirmative action and of Islam. Many times students have gone even further, stealing student newspapers in bulk to prevent certain opinions and news from being read on campus.

This anti-pluralist streak on campus hardly needs more indulging, which makes the Chronicle case all the more disappointing. The many who supported Riley's firing may think we've all been done a favor by taking away one of Riley's forums. We haven't. By granting the protesters’ wishes, the Chronicle has condescended to its readers and, for our college students, watered that weed of a notion that we should never have to confront ideas we dislike.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Peter Bonilla

Peter Bonilla is the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization committed to defending the free speech and individual liberties of college students and faculty across the political and ideological spectrum. Peter worked as the literary manager of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company prior to joining FIRE in 2008. Peter writes in his spare time, and has received a fellowship in playwriting from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Had he known a little bit more about the Statue of Liberty, he would have made a nice sum of money on 'Jeopardy!' in 2009. His B.A., in Theater Arts and Economics, is from the University of Pennsylvania. An expatriate of Washington, DC, he lives in Philadelphia.

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