What we have in this NYT story is an outraged conservative being peeved after finding out that there was going to be a University of Chicago anthropology course on “The Problem of Whiteness”. The student put information about the course, including publicly available information on the instructor’s photo and email address, on social media. It of course went viral among a certain set of The Easily Offended that does not include me.
Naturally, the instructor was harassed big time. She complained to the University about it—twice. While one dean characterized the social-media onslaught as “cyberbullying,” eventually the University dismissed the instructor’s complaints. She postponed the course one quarter (she not on tenure-track here, but a teaching instructor and a new Ph.D. looking for a job). Then, with University’s security and support, she taught the course twice.
The student who “doxxed” the instructor was not punished or sanctioned in any way. The University took this affair as a pure matter of freedom of speech, with no First Amendment violations committed by anyone. Of course we’re a private university and don’t have to abide by the First Amendment, but our well known Principles of Freedom of Expression (adopted by about 80 other universities) ensure that we do.
Click below, or find the article archived here.
A few details:
Rebecca Journey, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, thought little of calling her new undergraduate seminar “The Problem of Whiteness.” Though provocatively titled, the anthropology course covered familiar academic territory: how the racial category “white” has changed over time.
She was surprised, then, when her inbox exploded in November with vitriolic messages from dozens of strangers. One wrote that she was “deeply evil.” Another: “Blow your head clean off.”
The instigator was Daniel Schmidt, a sophomore and conservative activist with tens of thousands of social media followers. He tweeted, “Anti-white hatred is now mainstream academic inquiry,” along with the course description and Dr. Journey’s photo and university email address.
Spooked, Dr. Journey, a newly minted Ph.D. preparing to hit the academic job market, postponed her class to the spring. Then she filed complaints with the university, accusing Mr. Schmidt of doxxing and harassing her.
Mr. Schmidt, 19, denied encouraging anyone to harass her. And university officials dismissed her claims. As far as they knew, they said, Mr. Schmidt did not personally send her any abusive emails. And under the university’s longstanding, much-hailed commitment to academic freedom, speech was restricted only when it “constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.”
Schmidt sounds like a bad piece of work, but Journey’s photo and email address are freely available on the Internet, so he didn’t do anything but disseminate publicly available information. Not that I think the course is great, but if the University approved it, we can’t really beef. Nor can we say that Schmidt violated our principles of free expression.
Mr. Schmidt has found himself in adversarial roles before.
Over the last year or so, he actively supported Kanye West, the artist now known as Ye, for president — work that he promoted with Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier. Mr. Schmidt declined to comment on his political activism or his dealings with Mr. Fuentes.
In his first year at the university, Mr. Schmidt was fired from The Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, after his editors said that he had repeatedly antagonized another columnist on Instagram, and encouraged others to spam her. Mr. Schmidt said he was simply “calling out a public figure.”
After he was also fired from a conservative campus publication, Mr. Schmidt turned to his own website, College Dissident, which featured articles like “Time to Fight Anti-White Hatred on Campus.”
His activism has helped fuel an industry dedicated to accusing universities of liberal orthodoxy. Websites like Campus Reform and The College Fix have for years trained students to report on campus controversies, hoping that conservative news outlets like Fox News, Breitbart and The Daily Caller will whip out their own stories.
All three publications ended up writing about Dr. Journey’s class.
And after the course catalog said the class was canceled for the winter, Mr. Schmidt celebrated. “This is a huge victory,” he tweeted.”
What we seem to have is a professional kvetcher who comes down on liberals, but again—he didn’t do anything that violated the law or accepted university principles of free speech.
And here’s the support that Dr. Journey got from the University, which is important, and something that (as Greg notes below) the NYT didn’t make a big deal about. But that is the important part of the story since so many colleges refuse to defend their instructors attacked on social media (remember Hamline University and the Muhammad paintings?):
Administrators had already amped up security. They had moved Dr. Journey’s class to a building that required key-card access and did not publicly list the location. Dr. Journey said the university beefed up security patrols.
Officials also took key steps that supporters of academic freedom say many colleges fail to do: They affirmed Dr. Journey’s right to teach the class and did not distance the institution from her.
I sure as hell wouldn’t do what what Schmidt did, though in the past I have occasionally put up contact information for what I see as egregious circumstances. But a course doesn’t fit that description; it’s a course, and even if it be woke, I can write about it; but it’s rude and bad form to sic a bunch of angry conservatives on a new Ph.D. looking for a job.
I think that Geof Stone of the Law School, one of our big free-speech advocates, has the right take on this situation:
Professor Stone, who wrote the Chicago statement [of Free Expression], agreed that the student’s actions could have a “chilling effect” on speech. But, he asked, who determines the difference between, say, a newspaper reporting on an individual and Mr. Schmidt’s actions? Both can result in hate mail and threats, he said.
The university, as a private institution, could change its policies to say that students, staff and faculty cannot post material that is intended to be intimidating, Professor Stone said.
But such a move — which he does not recommend — would run afoul of the First Amendment if the university were public, and would bring its own complications, he said.
“It’s very hard for either law or institutions to monitor those sorts of things,” he said. “Your administrators may be biased in terms of who they go after, and who they don’t go after.”
And while a strong case could be made that Mr. Schmidt’s intent was to intimidate, Professor Stone said, “Do you really want to get into the business of trying to figure out what the purpose was?”
Finally, here’s Greg Mayer’s take on the whole business, quoted with permission.
Complaining about the class is fine, including identifying the instructor. If Schmidt did tweet out her email address, that’s unkind and uncalled for, and someone should talk to him about etiquette. It would also clearly NOT fall under one of the exceptions to the First Amendment, though: as Jerry noted to me, there was no call for imminent lawless action. Schmidt probably, though, hoped to generate a Twitter mob, which I guess he did.
Political ads that call for people to harass a politician are standard these days. (“Joe Biden wants to take away your Medicare. Call Joe Biden now and tell him to keep the government out of Medicare! Call xxx-xxx-xxxx now!”)
The University could have rules that are more restrictive than the First Amendment. But fashioning them could be difficult– what would cross the University’s (as opposed to the First Amendment’s) line? Name-calling? Incivility? But how to define these?
The U of C did stand by the instructor, which I think is the key here: the institution resisted the Twitter mob. Policing individuals is tough, in part because of the problem of defining where the “line” is; and there are so many individual miscreants one could go after. But having those in charge stand up for the academic freedom of the instructor is a rarity these days, and is the real story, which the Times barely mentions.
The course sounds like a real stinker– an exercise in the cultural typological essentialism which is sort of the guiding principle of neo-racism. But, as Voltaire didn’t say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”