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Protest, Protest, Protest, and Perish

A version of the article below appeared in the Friday, May 3rd digital edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The version here is the one I submitted before the piece was subject to editing.


My certainties and convictions about free speech have been somewhat upended of late. For the past decade, I have been researching controversies triggered by exceedingly opinionated artists, especially comedians and novelists. When I started, I was a garden-variety free-speech absolutist. Platitudes like “The more speech, the better!,” “Good speech is the best antidote to bad speech!,” “Offensive ideas/jokes must be tolerated and platformed!” etc., struck me as unproblematic. On principle, I stood with the stand-up. On principle, I fronted for the fictionalist. So what if they roasted this or that religion, racial group, or gender?


I remain a committed proponent of expressive liberties. But all that immersion in the whirligig of First Amendment scrums has made me more mindful of the complexity that surrounds these issues. To analyze them, you must be sensitive to Context. To resolve them, you must consider Accommodations and Balancing Interests. To really understand free speech debates in liberal democracies, you must recognize that they usually lead to Anguished Resolutions That Rarely Satisfy Anyone.


Awareness of all that is lacking in the Chronicle Review’s recent article “Student Activism is Integral to the Mission of Academe.” The authors, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, are serious scholars who write for broad audiences. Still, their championing of student free speech is weirdly removed from the evolving contexts in which students are speaking. Nor do they wrestle with the dilemma of how to weigh the rights and needs of the various participants.


“If colleges and universities are genuinely committed to preparing students for citizenship,” the authors contend, “they must protect their right to protest.” I agree with that as I do with their claim that student demonstrators needn’t be “unfailingly courteous, measured, and polite . . . There must be room for passion and provocation.” The problem is that these directives are pitched at a level of abstraction so high that it makes the authors sound like judges in powdered wigs gaveling in verdicts from a hot air balloon. 


Vagueness aside, their defense of campus activism reasons as if there is one, identical standard of free speech that applies to both students and scholars. In so doing, they overlook the relentless casualization of academic labor which is decimating the professoriate. The authors also need to confront the consequences of social media’s ascendancy; the debris kicked up by its carpet bombing and cratering of the old free speech landscape is blurring the human horizon.  

 

First, a quibble. Khalid and Snyder’s article misrepresents my position on campus activism. They cite me in conversation with Mark Oppenheimer on his podcast, The Syllabus. The host was inquiring about an Op Ed I wrote following the October 7th Hamas massacre in Israel. There, I remarked: “An academic campus can be a protest space. To a certain degree, it should be a protest space. But to reduce it to primarily that . . .  is really bad for students and professors.” 


Oppenheimer came in hot. He criticized me for suggesting that campuses can and should be protest spaces. Our back and forth was not un-spirited. In brief, Oppenheimer advocated for a protest-free quad. I retorted that I didn’t want such a thing, and couldn’t imagine it even if I did.


My topline views on campus activism, therefore, are more or less identical to those of Khalid and Snyder. All of us agree protest is necessary, but restrictions, or what they call “basic ground rules,” must obtain. They oppose “shouting down campus speakers” (yup!), “violating reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions,” (check)  and, “targeted harassment of individuals” (agreed). 


On that we concur. It’s when we descend to the lower altitudes and look at some recent controversies on the ground that our views start to diverge. 


In December, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing about anti-Semitism on American college campuses. The presidents of MIT, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania were summoned. It was an ambush. Overly and poorly coached by their handlers, the former two leaders subsequently resigned. 


Last week, it was Columbia University’s turn to spend some time on the cross.  The congresspersons, mostly Republicans, eagerly rehearsed violations of civility, free speech law (and other types of law) that have recently occurred in Morningside Heights. What stunned me was the posture of the Columbia delegation. The team, led by President Nemat Shafik, rarely disputed that these violations occurred. 


Shafik commented that “Most of our demonstrations have been peaceful.” It wouldn’t surprise me if, statistically speaking, most of the protest activity actually had been peaceful and lawful (in recent days, however, the situation has spiraled out of control). The marches I attended after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 were massive, tense, peaceful and entirely lawful–even though some media narratives suggested otherwise. Obviously, not all of Columbia protestors were obeying the “basic ground rules.” But I find Shafik’s original claim plausible. 


Be that as it may, let’s take stock. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack which killed 1200 Israelis and led to the abduction and killing of hundreds of hostages. On Columbia’s campus there’ve been countless peaceful and lawful protests about Israel/Gaza. There’ve been many unpeaceful, but likely lawful, protests about Israel/Gaza. And there’ve been a menacingly growing number of unlawful and unpeaceful protests about Israel/Gaza. 


Now I come to my theme: that’s a whole lot of protests about Israel/Gaza, especially for an institution that doesn’t have a seat at the United Nations. Especially for an institution not chartered to scrutinize Israel/Gaza to the exclusion of every other issue that can be debated at a leading global university. Which leads me to ask: is the issue even being debated? Is the campus community gaining a more rigorous understanding of the conflict as a result of the agitations? 


While Khalid and Snyder celebrate protest as a means to learn about citizenship, their argument is one sided. Doesn’t citizenship require recognizing that some compatriots may not share your passions? I also remind them that the fallout from 24/7 protesting goes way beyond “ruffling feathers.” Jewish and Muslim students, observed Claire Shipman, co-chair of the Columbia Board of Trustees, “feel stressed and scared walking into class.” Across the country, routine educational functions, like graduation exercises, are being disrupted. New restrictions are being placed on speakers. Campuses are on lockdown, classes are being canceled.


I echo the sentiments of Shipman: “When people feel fear and intimidation they can’t learn.” Constant political protest degrades the entire educational mission of the university.

 

Throughout the hearing, well-known anti-Zionist Columbia faculty members were called out by name. The congressional questioners inquired about their employment status–and whether it would be revoked. President Shafik, who was fairly surefooted in parrying Republican performative rage, stumbled here. Hers was not a rousing defense of the institution of tenure.


I have no agreement with the scholars threatened by Congress. Moreover, I have often lamented that entire departments, and even divisions, at elite universities are dominated by those who subscribe to the types of far left epistemologies that could compel a person to exult in Hamas’ slaughter or tweet joyously as events unfolded on October 7. In the humanities, at least, we are afflicted by a dire imbalance of viewpoints. With tenure disappearing (see below), I see no viable “five-year plan” to even this out. 


Then again, without tenure there is no academic freedom. No humanities, either. If we permit elected officials to infiltrate our processes, flawed as they may be, the professoriate as we know it will cease to exist. 


At Columbia, the views of many student protestors and professors are in harmony. What happens, however, when the two clash? Khalid and Snyder leave this dilemma unaddressed. But let’s think it through.

 

In the fall of 2022, Dr. Elena López Prater, became embroiled in a free speech controversy. The Hamline College art historian had shown her class an image of the Prophet Muhammad (in some Islamic traditions, visual representations of him are forbidden). No one disputes that screening these slides conformed to canons of scholarly and pedagogical necessity. The professor followed protocols, issued trigger warnings, and was receptive to student concerns. 


López Prater was employed as an adjunct. Thus, when some students complained about the images, she had no one to protect her other than free speech and academic freedom advocates.  such as Khalid and myself–and a lot of good we did (though Khalid’s defense was excellent). It was students who complained about this professor’s lecture materials. It was students who activated the response from the Hamline administration. It was faculty, by contrast, who contested her removal by the administration.


The fiasco illuminated a 21st-century equation for academic freedom: Angry Students + Supine, Clueless Administration = Newly Unemployed (Adjunct) Professor. This equation is in play because the institution of tenure is being slowly, methodically “sunsetted” by our administrative overseers. With each passing year, a smaller percentage of the professoriate will have proper free speech protections. 


It emerges from the Hamline and Columbia cases that the free speech interests of: 1) administrations, 2) students, and, 3) faculty, are not necessarily aligned. They may even be mutually antagonistic, though two of the three may join hands against one.  


If there are, at least, three estates on campus, then what kind of speech is a university most committed to defend? On behalf of my estate, I respond: expert speech. A university’s responsibility is to create the conditions in which the ideas of credentialed scholars can be generated and conveyed. When students study, criticize, refine, and even rationally refute, expert speech they are privy to its protections. 

 

A thunderous chant, an encampment adorned with flags, a “die-in”--I refer to this as “Quad Speech.” 


With Khalid and Snyder, I concur that administrations should try to accommodate Quad Speech. This accommodation, however, must adhere to a hierarchical logic: Quad Speech is less integral to the institution’s mission than expert speech. Ergo, a professor’s lecture trumps a Hey Hey! Ho Ho! chant. If the chant disrupts the lecture, the course of action is obvious. If those doing the chanting are professors, the same rules apply. 


Expert Speech and Quad Speech should both be prioritized over a third form of communication: Speaker of the House Speech. Why Rep. Mike Johnson and his entourage were allowed on Columbia’s campus to sow further division is a mystery to me. Then again, the 18-minutes of non-stop verbal abuse they endured from the Quad sort of achieved an inadvertent equipoise; I guess lots of people on both sides got to speak their peace. 


Quad Speech has an elective affinity with social media. Its hostility to nuance, emotional volatility, and its missionizing ethos makes it ideal for digital display. In fact, one plausible rationale for not expanding basic Quad Speech freedoms is how easily it migrates to, and thrives in, cyberspace


The internet is a platform which gives most of humanity an unprecedented “voice” of sorts. One’s effusions can now be radiated afar with unparalleled ease, speed, and capacity for audience penetration. This changes “speech.” Something I’ve been mentioning to my “Global Secularisms” class is that this one development forces us to rethink free speech absolutism–a position which characterizes many secular social movements since the Victorian era.  


The 19th century is over, so is the 20th. Our speech laws need to reckon with that.

Digital speech, which is Gen Z’s mother tongue, is a boon to campus activists. Those beholden to a notion that #silenceisviolence can now “flood the zone” (e.g., X, TikTok, Instagram) with their political opinions. The internet is bottomless. A college campus, I fear, cannot bear so much inundation. 


 

Although Khalid and Snyder describe my approach as  “shut up and study,” I think a more accurate platitude might be a bemused “can everyone, please stay in their lane!”. Students and professors should not be grinding the university to a halt. Professors should not abandon reasoned analysis and inconvenient facts. Armed law enforcement should be called in only as a last resort. President Shafik should not be abandoning the professoriate. Mike Johnson should not be needlessly instigating rage on the steps of Low Library. 


As for Shafik, she mentioned that Columbia’s anti-Semitism task force made the following recommendation: "if you are going to chant, it should only be in a certain place so people who don't want to hear it are protected from having to hear it." To my mind, that’s the best possible anguished resolution that will rarely satisfy anyone.


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