Pinker on the Worser Angels of our Nature

March 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

You needn’t tell me that the title is grammatically incorrect; it’s on purpose.  While Steve Pinker is known for documenting material and moral progress in our species over the last five centuries, and analyzing why it’s happened, there’s one area where he’s not so optimistic. And that’s the increasing “illiberalism” on American college campuses.

Pinker’s pessimism, based on events that you’ve seen documented repeatedly on this site, was expressed in a new interview in the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper of Brown University. (Brown is known as a “woke school”.)

Click on the screenshot to read.

Much of this you’ve heard before, like the fracases at The Evergreen State College and Middlebury College, but some stuff is new. For example:

A) Pinker dates the beginning of “political correctness and cancel culture” to the publication of Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, which inspired a lot of pushback from those who thought Wilson’s views on human behavior (i.e., it has a genetic/evolutionary component) were retrograde and right-wing. I was at Harvard at the time and witnessed some of that, though I wasn’t there when a protestor threw a cup of water on Wilson and shouted, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

B) The “cancellation” trend is increasing. The article cites data from FIRE’s “disinvitation database” showing that the last five years have witnessed a 36% increase in these disinvitations over the five years before that. I’ve also documented that this increase has been accompanied by an rise in the proportion of disinvitations and shouting-down events coming from the Left.  In the earliest data coming from 1998 and the subsequent ten years, there was a roughly equal number of cancel-culture things from the Right and Left, but now they’re heavily from the Left.

C) Pinker gives two reasons for the increase. First, “a backlash on the left against Donald Trump.” That is, people have supposedly realized that Enlightenment ideals have failed to rescue us from tyrants like Trump and his minions, and so resort to “some fairly radical responses.” I don’t think this is all that plausible, for wokeness has not obviously diminished—indeed, it’s increased—since Biden took office. It’s early days, but I see the storm clouds gathering.

His second explanation is that it comes from “several generations of professors having indoctrinated their students in an ideological mixture of postmodernism and Marxist critical theory”, which has now reached the tipping point into college insanity. This seems more likely to me. And then there’s my own theory, which is probably not mine, that the pandemic got a lot of people restive, and they took this out by policing others, as well as by trying to control their environment by gaining power.

One take by Pinker on this mess:

It’s not that every college administrator or professor shares these views, though, Pinker says. But few are daring enough to express their opposition. When faced with an issue of this sort, colleges too often choose flight over fight. Groveling has become the default setting. “It’s rather disturbing to see the people in charge of our institutions of higher learning repeating clichés and slogans,” Pinker said. “For university administrators, (acquiescence) is often the path of least resistance since a small number of noisy student protestors can make a university president’s life miserable.”

Student activists have learned how to game the system. Claims of mental and physical harm are used to advance political agendas. Statues are taken down. Disfavored speaking events are shut down, and those opposing such moves are treated as though they agree with the content of the speech rather than the principle of free speech itself. But it’s mostly a tactic, Pinker says. “It’s not that we have a generation of snowflakes. Although, there may be some of that. But it’s not so much being wounded but it’s the pretext of being wounded,” which is used as a means to exert power and conscript others into conforming to the ideology.

And, contrary to those who say this is a tempest in a teapot, and that the kids will settle down when they get into the “real world,” well, we already know that’s a bogus claim. Newly hatched Wokies are infesting mainstream media, corporations, and academia itself, and bringing their college views with them.

From the article:

The result is that fringe student activists can and do wield an inordinate amount of power on campus. Universities have become political in the extreme, and we should be worried.

“Contrary to the cliché sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger that ‘academic disputes are so fierce because so little is at stake,’ I think a lot is at stake,” Pinker says. “Not only (because) it’s college graduates who populate and control all of our institutions … but the entire academic ecosystem is at stake.”

Steve, the eternal optimist, says that there are some solutions. The first one I really like, because it’s the abandonment of my own University’s principles, currently in progress, that will eventually bring us down—maybe to the level of Princeton, but I hope not to the level of Smith:

But there are some slam-dunk moves universities and students can take to improve the culture, Pinker says. The number one priority of each and every campus bureaucracy must be to advance the mission of the university. Administrators must also continuously reiterate “the principles that underlie the existence of the university, namely acquisition of knowledge where knowledge inherently involves humility and skepticism.”

Part of the mission of the University of Chicago is to foster not just the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of the ability to evaluate knowledge and arrive at positions through free and open inquiry. That too requires humility and skepticism. In this view of life, one must cling tenaciously to the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

While I’m not sure how many students at a place like Smith are “unwoke” and appalled by its balkanization, the last sentence below is vitally important. We have to speak up against the dying of the light, no matter how many people hurl insults like “racist” or “bigot” at us. Saying what you feel might not make you popular, but, like atheism, rationality spreads faster the more people are willing to speak out against irrationality.

On the student side, Pinker is optimistic. “I’ve been surprised by how many students are actually appalled by the stifling of debate and the deplatforming of speakers.” But, by and large, these students have watched the battles on campus from a safe distance. “(They) aren’t bringing in the bureaucrats to shut down those they disagree with, they’re not protesting, they’re not setting off fire alarms during lectures,” so we don’t really know how prevalent these views are. But repairing the culture requires that they be more vocal.

Whether these kinds of changes are coming anytime soon, Pinker is unsure. But he rejects the notion that the pendulum will swing back from gravity alone.

“I think it could happen and will happen but only if we make it happen. It won’t happen by itself.”

h/t: Rick


“Dear University of Vermont”: a Jodi Shaw equivalent at a different school

March 10, 2021 • 9:45 am

I was alerted to this video by the tweet of Jodi Shaw (below). Shaw, of course, was involved in a huge kerfuffle with Smith College, which first got publicized when she put up a video on YouTube called “Dear Smith College: I have a few requests.

Now there’s a Shaw equivalent at the University of Vermont: Professor Aaron Kindsvatter, who teaches about adult learning and mental health at the Unversity’s College of Education and Social Services. He made a nine-minute video below the tweet. You may have to watch it on YouTube, where for some reason it’s restricted by Kindsvatter himself. The video resembles that of Shaw, whose own videos probably inspired him, in saying that an atmosphere of anti-white racism pervades his campus—and in a very similar way that, according to Shaw, pervades the campus of Smith College.

Kindsvatter’s plaint mirrors that of Shaw: he’s calling out “discrimination against whiteness” at the University of Vermont, a stance adopted by some “desperate persons who need a group to hate.”  He’s worried that this ideology will find its way to hate groups, who will adopt its methods. I’m not sure what methods he’s referring to, however.

At any rate, Kindsvatter finds it hard to see how it became possible for people to denigrate anybody by their race “on such a progressive campus.” This was, he says, instantiated by a recent teach-in on “whiteness” in which “a number of social ills were associated in a causal way with people of a particular race” (he means white people).

He also learned that pushing back against anti-whiteness was “not okay”, and has learned that his University is instituting policies that will chill dissent, like adopting the official definitions of racism and antiracism from Ibram X. Kendi. He concludes that he would be considered a “racist” according to those definitions, which makes it difficult to dissent from University policy.

His requests, similar to those of Shaw.

1.) Stop reducing his personhood to a racial category in the teach-ins.

2.) Do not divide the university into groups of racial categories.

3.) Stop telling Kindsvatter that his values are “harmful” because he doesn’t adhere to the prevailing ideology.

4.) Do not present him with the alternatives of either accepting the policies of Kendi and DiAngelo, or being considered a racist (he says he’s read both authors “and did not find wisdom there”).

In the end, he says the University may be violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits “discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, and national origin is prohibited.” He calls for those who share his concerns to meet up and talk about it.

Is he, like Jodi Shaw, doomed to be toast? I suspect he’s going to get a lot of flak from the administration, but we shall see. Perhaps there’s another GoFundMe campaign in the future. . .

A new and powerful organization to preserve freedom of expression in universities

March 9, 2021 • 1:30 pm

There seems to be lots of organizations forming to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the three I know of (two of which haven’t yet been announced) include a mixture of liberals and conservatives, which is great. After all, freedom of thought and expression isn’t the bailiwick of any one side of the political spectrum.

I found out about this one from my colleague Brian Leiter, who posted this on his website Leiter Reports: (CHE is the Chronicles of Higher Education, and you should read their article; link below). Brian’s short post:

“Academic Freedom Alliance”

Another violation of academic freedom at The University of Chicago

March 8, 2021 • 12:30 pm

As I’ve written here before, the University of Chicago has several “foundational principles”. These include the famous Chicago Principles of Free Expression, promoting complete freedom of speech, which have been adopted by over sixty universities. They also include the Kalven Report, which prohibits the University, with a few rare exceptions, of taking official political, moral, or ideological stands. Both of these principles are designed to foster the widest possible discussion of issues and to avoid “chilling speech”, that is, to avoid creating a climate in which people feel intimidated from speaking their minds. The latter point is especially salient in these times of ideological conformity, especially in colleges (and that means, in general, conformity to the Progressive Left).

I recently found the following statement on the University webpage of the Master of Arts Program in Humanities, described as “a rigorous, one-year graduate program that allows students to focus within a specific academic discipline—such as Art History or English—or to explore their interdisciplinary interests.”

Although it is signed by some faculty, as opposed to the numerous other unsigned statements that appear as official blanket endorsements of ideologies on department or program webpages (e.g., here), it still appears as an official statement by an organization, and is therefore liable to chill speech. I see this as an egregious violation of the Kalven Report.

Note that it not only describes the death of George Floyd as a “police murder”, which is surely a debatable issue rather than a settled matter (can we please wait for the trial and verdict?), but, more important, pushes adherence to a certain point of view as well as calling for action (following the program of Black Lives Matter, defunding the campus police, and supporting current protests). This is a political and ideological statement from an organized unit of the University. It therefore does not belong on an official University webpage. Although I adhere to parts of the statement, even if I adhered to all of it I would still consider it a violation of the University of Chicago’s principles.

As the Kalven Report notes, and I agree, the faculty are welcome to write whatever they want as individuals or groups, but not when appearing to speak for the University or one of its units:

In October of last year, President Robert Zimmer reaffirmed that these principles and clarified that they don’t just apply to the University administration, but to units of the University as well:

The principles of the Kalven Report apply not only to the University as a whole, but to the departments, schools, centers, and divisions as well, and for exactly the same reasons, i.e., these essential components of the University should not take institutional positions on public issues that are not directly related to the core functioning of the University.  Of course, faculty, students, and staff, either individually or in groups, are free to take positions as individuals or as collections of individuals, but this expression must be distinct from expression advanced by official units of the University. This distinction must be maintained, because the process of assessing complex issues must always allow for the broadest diversity of views to be heard and held, and the diversity of views that lies at the heart of a great university must never be chilled by formal institutional positions on such issues.

I love that paragraph, as well as the one above it. “It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

Some departments, faculty, and students apparently don’t realize that by pushing their political points of view as statements of departments, committees, and other official units of the University, they are chilling the speech of those who might disagree with them. By all means, write on your own time; write a letter to the Chicago Maroon newspaper; write an op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education giving your personal take on politics. But don’t try to make your views into official University statements, thereby inhibiting free discussion.

Glenn Greenwald excoriates Dems for assailing free speech

February 25, 2021 • 12:30 pm

As I’ve said before, I find Glenn Greenwald a mixed bag, but it’s worth checking his Substack site to see what he has to say. This week’s column is a critique of the Democrats’ new drive to single out media venues as a possible way of suppressing conservative speech. The fight between government and social media/regular media is not something I follow regularly, but Greenwald does, and he’s angry about the use of government to intimidate those who provide news. He’s not particularly concerned about regulating news as being “fake” because, he says, authoritarians have always used the excuse of “fake and harmful news” to suppress their opponents.

Click on the screenshot to read: (it’s free, but you should consider subscribing if you read often):

Democratic intimidation, says Greenwald, has taken several forms: calling people like Zuckerberg before Congressional committees (three times in less than three months), a hearing that started yesterday before part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee called “Fanning the flames: disinformation and extremism in the media,” and the fact of House Democrats sending letters to the nation’s largest cable companies (Comcast, Verizon, etc.) and to distributors like Amazon, Apple, and Google, with a list of demands. I have to say, this list is pretty heavy-handed:

But you say that these companies are damaging the country by promulgating “fake news” (invariably conservative news)? Here’s Greenwald’s response:

The way Democrats justify this to themselves is important to consider. They do not, of course, explicitly acknowledge that they are engaged in authoritarian assaults on free speech and a free press. Not even the most despotic tyrants like to think of themselves in that way. All tyrants concoct theories and excuses to justify their censorship as noble and necessary.

Indeed, the justifying script Democrats are using here is the one most commonly employed by autocrats around the world to silence their critics. Those they seek to silence are not merely expressing a different view, but are dangerous. They are not merely advocating alternative ideologies but are destabilizing society with lies, fake news, and speech that deliberately incites violence, subversion and domestic terrorism.

In her boastful posting, Rep. Eshoo says her efforts targeting these cable outlets are necessary because “misinformation on TV has led to our current polluted information environment that radicalizes individuals to commit seditious acts and rejects public health best practices, among other issues in our public discourse.” This is the rationale invoked by virtually every repressive state to imprison journalists and ban media outlets.

The Democrats sound a great deal like the Egyptian regime of Gen. Abdel el-Sisi. Just two weeks ago, Sisi’s regime finally released an Al Jazeera journalist who had been imprisoned for four years based on accusations that he had “spread false news” and was guilty of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos.” Sound familiar? It should, since that is precisely what House Democrats are saying to ennoble their multi-pronged assault on free expression.

And, avers Greenwald, it’s not like liberals don’t pollute the waters with fake news:

Are there conspiracy theories and disinformation sometimes found on the conservative cable outlets which House Democrats want taken off the air? Of course there are: all media outlets disseminate conspiracy theories and fake news at times. MSNBC and CNN spent four years endorsing the most deranged conspiracy theory imaginable, one with very toxic roots in the Cold War: namely, the McCarthyite script that the Kremlin had taken over control of key U.S. institutions through sexual blackmail over the President, invasions into the nation’s heating system and electric grid, and criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign to hack into Democrats’ emails.

He shows a screenshot:

So what’s Greenwald’s solution? Let the companies say whatever they want? (This would be close to my solution, so long as what they say doesn’t transgress the First Amendment.) But he offers another palliative, and one that, if you’ll forgive me, doesn’t seem very workable:

. . . as much as I loathe so much of what those outlets do, it is not the role of the government to regulate let alone silence them. The corrective is for journalists to rebuild trust and faith with the public by exposing their misinformation and proving to the public that they will do accurate and reliable reporting regardless of which faction is aggrandized or angered.

He’s right about the government keeping its hands off the press, but do journalists really have any desire or incentive to rebuild public trust and faith by exposing information? I don’t see that happening with either the Right- or Left-Wing media (I’m not as familiar with the Right, as I don’t read them so much, but who at the New York Times is policing the paper? Not the executive editor, that’s for sure!)

Some readers won’t like Greenwald’s comparison in the last paragraph, but, like Rod Serling, I submit it for your approval:

But corporate media outlets and Democrats (excuse the redundancy) who spent the last four years posturing as virulent defenders of press freedoms never meant it. Like so much of what they claimed to believe, it was fraudulent. The proof is that they are now mute, if not supportive, as Democrats use their status as majority party to launch an assault against press freedoms far more egregious than anything Trump got close to doing.

As I said, this isn’t exactly an area I follow, so I’d be especially interested in readers’ comments. Are the Dems hypocrites in this respect?

A hard case for free-speech advocates

February 21, 2021 • 12:30 pm

If you read this site even cursorily, you’ll know that I’m pretty much what they call a “hard-liner” on free speech. That is, I adhere to the Constitution’s First Amendment, which (with important exceptions) stipulates that the government cannot prevent you from speaking as a citizen. The exceptions, as carved out by American courts over the years, include harassment in the workplace, false advertising, defamation (deliberately lying with intent to harm), speech intended and liable to create imminent violence, and so on. I can’t think of a single form of speech that the courts haven’t already dealt with that should be prohibited. I don’t adhere to European blasphemy or “hate speech” laws, for instance: I think that Holocaust denialism should be allowed and that people should be able to say “gas the Jews”, so long as there aren’t Jews, a gas chamber, and an angry mob at hand.

Moreover, I go further, arguing that even private organizations should go as far as they can in allowing the kind of speech permitted by the First Amendment. For example, I think all colleges should adhere to what public colleges and universities must already adhere to: First-Amendment freedoms.  Facebook and Twitter, as far as they can, should do likewise. Nevertheless, I recognize that in some cases private organizations can and should be able to restrict speech. It wouldn’t do, for example, for a business to allow its employees to hurl racial slurs at customers.

So here’s a hard case for me, one that gave me pause. It involves a Canadian comedian, Quebecois Mike Ward, making fun of a disabled kid as part of his act. For that, Ward is now facing judgment by Canada’s Supreme Court. Click on the screenshot to read. 

The article notes that Canada, like the U.S., has pretty broad speech laws, but it also has “hate speech laws” against “identifiable groups” and, at least in Quebec, a “right to dignity”. In the case of the disabled kid, Jérémy Gabriel, these rights came into conflict. The minority group in question is the disabled, and the dignity attacked was Gabriel’s, as comedian Ward made fun of him in his act.

About a decade ago, the comedian Mike Ward, of Quebec, mocked the voice of a well-known disabled teenage singer in a standup routine, roasting him for being off-key, making fun of his hearing aid and calling him “ugly.” But he said he had defended the boy to others because he would soon die. When the teen didn’t die of his illness, the comedian joked, he tried to drown him.

Here’s Gabriel’s disability:

Mr. Gabriel has Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare congenital disease characterized by skull and facial deformities. He was born deaf and received a hearing aid implant at age 6. At age 8, he captured hearts across Quebec after singing the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens hockey game. He went on to meet Celine Dion in Las Vegas, serenade Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican and write an autobiography.

Gabriel is thus a public figure, which to some makes him less immune to mockery. I have to admit that Ward’s comedy crossed the line for me, as I don’t find it funny at all. It’s mean-spirited. But that’s a different question from whether what he said was illegal. Remember that comedians often cross the line to make a point. Sarah Silverman, Lenny Bruce, and Dave Chappelle are just three. Chappelle, in fact, often goes after other black people, like Jussie Smollett, using the n-word, and that’s legal in the U.S. (the piece on Smollett, at the link, is also very funny). Silverman, I believe, has made fun of the aged, and perhaps the disabled. A lot of American comedy would, it seems, violate Canada’s “hate speech” and “right to dignity” laws.

The mockery of Gabriel was part of Ward’s act that also went after other folks:

Mr. Ward, a stand-up comic who has twice won “comedian of the year” in a prestigious Quebec comedy award show, has appeared on television internationally, and is known for his trenchant comedic style. In 2008, his joke about a 9-year-old girl who was abducted spurred death threats against him.

The Supreme Court case took root in 2010, when the comedian used his act to make fun of people in Quebec seen as being above criticism, and targeted celebrities like Celine Dion. He also targeted Mr. Gabriel and, among other jokes, made fun of his hearing aid, calling him “the kid with the subwoofer” on his head. The show was performed hundreds of times between 2010 and 2013, and disseminated online.

And Gabriel said that he was harmed by Ward’s mockery:

Mr. Gabriel, now a 24-year-old political science student in Quebec City, said in an interview that the comedy routine — and the raucous laughter it provoked — destroyed his self-esteem during difficult teenage years when he was already grappling with being disabled. As a result of the routine, he said he was bullied at school, and became depressed and suicidal, while his parents were crushed. He said that after his complaint against Mr. Ward, he also received death threats from the comedian’s fans.

“You are already dealing with prejudices when you have a disability and the process of self-acceptance is even harder when you are a teenager,” he said. “It became a thousand times harder when people were laughing at the idea of me dying. I felt like my life was worth less than others.”

I don’t doubt that Gabriel experienced harm as he describes. But bullying by others was not the intention of Ward, so this isn’t equivalent to the comedian harassing him personally and repeatedly. Further, Ward was a public figure, and making fun of public figures is a regular trope of comedy. Usually it’s not for a disability, but remember that Trump, in his inadvertent Presidential comedy act, made fun of a disabled reporter and was not prosecuted.  If one went after Justin Trudeau in a nasty way—and one could!—it could deprive him of his “right to dignity,” even if Trudeau was not a member of an “identifiable group.”  But perhaps if someone in Newfoundland made fun of Quebecois, that would be a “hate crime.” I don’t really know how it works in Canada.

At any rate, 9 years ago Gabriel’s family filed a complaint against Ward for breaching the human rights code of Quebec, and the commission found Ward culpable for breaching Gabriel’s dignity, ordering Ward to pay him $35,000 (Canadian) and his family $7000. Ward appealed, and the appellate court upheld the decision except for eliminating the damages given to Gabriel’s family. Ward then appealed to Canada’s Supreme Court, which has heard the case and will rule soon.

Note that other comedians have equally odious aspects of their acts, none of which I think should be illegal:

In the United States, Lenny Bruce was labeled a “sick comic” for his expletive-laced routines, and in 1961 he was arrested on obscenity charges in San Francisco. His defiance helped to clear the way for other iconoclastic comedians.

In France, the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been repeatedly charged with violating anti-hate laws. He is widely associated with an inverted Nazi salute known as the quenelle. In 2013, he lamented that a prominent Jewish journalist had not died in “the gas chambers.”

As a secular Jew, I find that disgusting bigotry, but it’s not and shouldn’t be illegal.

Canadian comedians are upset, of course, because if the Supreme Court upholds the verdict, it puts comedy on a slippery slope. Remember, the offense Ward committed wasn’t hate speech, but the “right to dignity.” In my view, nobody has a “right to dignity”—at least, not a right to immune from mockery, which is what that right appears to comprise. Once you define a “right” in that sense, there’s no stopping anybody from bringing lawsuits. It would be the death of substantive comedy.

Granted, Ward’s making fun of Gabriel was reprehensible. It served no comedic purpose that I can see, and was mean spirited. And yes, it did harm Gabriel, but I don’t think that Ward intended the bullying and threats to ensue.

Ward may be found guilty under Canadian law, but he wouldn’t be under American law. And, in my own judgment, though what Ward did was vile and not in the least humorous, that’s what people have said about comedians like Lenny Bruce for years. A nasty and uncalled-for joke, for sure; speech worthy of censorship and punishment, no. Not in my view.

FIRE’s annual award: The ten worst American colleges for free speech

February 18, 2021 • 10:30 am

It’s that time of year again: the time when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) awards its yearly “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” kudos. (The University of Chicago always gets the “Best College for Free Speech” award.) There are ten awards plus a lifetime award to a particularly censorious college. Click on the screenshot below to see the details. I’ll just name the colleges and give a few words about why they’re on the list.

Of course all public universities must adhere to the First Amendment. Several of the colleges singled out by FIRE are private schools, but they’ve also made a pledge to respect freedom of speech, a pledge that they violated.

The winners (i.e., losers), in no particular order. The offenses are given in much more detail in the article.

University of Tennessee, UT Health Science Center, Memphis, TN. A doctoral student in pharmacy was investigated for her excessive “sexuality” in her social-media posts, even though she didn’t identify herself as a student in the program. She’s sued the university.

St. John’s University, Queens, NY. A professor was removed from the classroom indefinitely for asking students whether the transatlantic slave trade had any positive effects on biodiversity. He didn’t try to justify slavery; this was part of a course on the effects of transatlantic ship traffic on biodiversity. He’s sued the University.

Collin College, McKinney, TX. A history professor criticized Mike Pence on Twitter during the Vice-Presidential debate, saying that the moderator “needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.”  The college issued a statement condemning her tweets and gave her a written warning despite the fact that her tweets were protected by the First amendment. Collin College then refused to renew her contract. Collin College did several other questionable things that are detailed in the piece.

Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, KS. This is a publicly-funded school. It kicked out a student during the pandemic, forcing him to sleep in his car, for criticizing a university official. It also tried to order the student newspaper not to criticize the University.

New York University, New York, NY. NYU’s school of medicine tried to prevent its doctors from making any public comments about the coronavirus without consulting the University. This constitutes “prior restraint”. (NYU is a private school but swears to uphold free speech.)

Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. A professor gave a student permission to say the n-word during a class discussion about why it’s inappropriate to use the word. The prof didn’t say the word, but allowed a student to do so pedagogically. The professor was removed from the class and then suspended for seven months without pay, including mandatory training.  The prof has hired an attorney.

Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD. Like NYU, this school told its employees not to speak to the media about how the school was handling the pandemic. (That’s illegal, as this is a public school.) It then investigated and harassed a reporter for the student newspaper who criticized the school’s pandemic response.

Northwestern University in Qatar, Doha, Qatar. This Qatari branch of the Chicago school canceled a rock band concert because the lead singer was openly gay, citing “safety concerns.” They had the event on the U.S. campus, but violated freedom of expression overseas.

University of Illinois at Chicago. A law professor asked a hypothetical question on a law-school exam using redacted words. The question included an assertion that a person said they were called “a ‘n______’ and ‘b_______’. (profane expressions for African Americans and women”  Yes, the words were censored on the exam. And how could he have posed a hypothetical any more sensitively? After all, to judge the case you need some idea how the words were used. Nevertheless, UIC opened an investigation into the professor’s exam. This is chilling of speech, pure and simple.

Fordham University, New York, NY. Fordham has repeatedly refused to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine because “its sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group.” This has been going on for four years. As I’ve said, I consider SJP an Islamist organization, but it’s both illegal and unethical to not recognize it when it recognizes other organizations with political agendas. The school also suspended a student for legal postings on his Instagram account.

And. . . . a school gets a Lifetime Censorship Award for repeated violations of its free-speech code! Voilà:

There’s too much to recount, but here’s one paragraph:

Even inaugurating a new chancellor in 2014 did not stem the tide of student rights abuses — Kent Syverud oversaw the dismantling of an entire engineering fraternity and the expulsion of several members in 2018 over their private satirical “roast.” Syracuse claims that the voluntary skit constituted “conduct that threatens the mental health” of others once it was leaked to the public — an assertion so preposterous that it led to lawsuits in state and federal court, where university attorneys attested, under oath, that the school’s speech promises are, in fact, worthless. Syracuse concluded the decade by rejecting a Young Americans for Freedom chapter over its conservative viewpoints, banning all fraternity social activity despite no evidence of misconduct by any of the students, and, most recently, placing a professor on leave for writing “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” on his course syllabus.

It’s sadly ironic that the university itself argues that its promises of free expression are worthless. Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be Syracuse students!

As a palliative, here are FIRE’s top five colleges for free speech:

  1. The University of Chicago
  2. Kansas State University
  3. Texas A&M University
  4. University of California, Los Angeles
  5. Arizona State University

We’re number one!

And as a downer, here’s some illegal chilling of speech on the high-school level (click on screenshot):

An excerpt (the whole article is quite interesting in showing how the school simply fired the coach for questioning the curriculum as a parent):

Judicial Watch announced today that it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of David Flynn, the father of two Dedham Public School students, who was removed from his position as head football coach after exercising his right as a citizen to raise concerns about his daughter’s seventh-grade history class curriculum being changed to include biased coursework on politics, race, gender equality, and diversity (Flynn v. Forrest et al. (No. 21-cv-10256)). 

The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, seeks damages against the superintendent, high school principal, and high school athletic director for retaliating against Flynn for exercising his First Amendment rights. 


Trump lawyer fired from the University of Colorado for giving a speech at Trump’s rally

February 11, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I suppose I’ll get into trouble by defending the right to free speech of someone who likes Trump, especially if he’s John C. Eastman, one of Trump’s former lawyers who spoke at the infamous January 6 pre-siege Trump rally. But what I’m really defending here, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) did, is not misguided Republican thinking but freedom of speech. In particular, I’m defending someone who spoke at that rally but did not incite violence and had no history of doing so. That’s free speech, and yet he was fired from a public university for it—after he was first exonerated by the university but then further attacked by online mobs. But remember, what good is free speech if we don’t allow it for our political opponents?

Click on the screenshot to read FIRE’s press release:

According to the letter that FIRE wrote to the the University of Colorado at Boulder (“UCB”; see below for letter), Eastman, then a visiting professor at UCB, spoke for 3 minutes at the January 6 rally. This is a transcript of his talk:

Hello, America!

Sorry, I had to say that. Look, we’ve got petitions pending before the Supreme Court that identify—in chapter and verse—the number of times state election officials ignored or violated a state law in order to put Vice President Biden over the finish line. We know there was fraud— traditional fraud—that occurred. We know that dead people voted. But we now know, because we caught it live last time in real time, how the machines contributed to that fraud. And let me as simply as I can explain it.

You know, the old way was to have a bunch of ballots sitting in a box under the floor, and when you needed more, you pull them out in the dark of night. They put those ballots in a secret folder and the machines, sitting there waiting until they know how many they need. And then the machine after the close of polls, we now know who’s voted, and we know who hasn’t. And I can now—in that machine— match those unvoted ballots with an unvoted voter and put them together in the machine. And how do we know that happened last night in real time? You saw when it got to 99 percent of the vote total and then it stopped. The percentage stopped, but the votes didn’t stop. What happened—and you don’t see this on Fox or any of those stations—but the data shows that the denominator: How many ballots remained to be counted? How else do you figure out the percentage that you have? How many remain to be counted? That number started moving up. That means they were unloading the ballots from that secret folder, matching ‘em to the unvoted voter, and voila! we have enough votes to barely get over the finish line. We saw it happen in real time last night, and it happened on November 3rd as well. And all we are demanding of Vice President Pence is this afternoon at one o’clock, he let the legislatures of the state look into this so we get to the bottom of it, and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government or not. We no longer live in a self-governing Republic if we can’t get the answer to this question. This is bigger than President Trump. It is the very essence of our republican form of government and it has to be done. And anybody that is not willing to stand up to do it does not deserve to be in the office. It is that simple.

So we have a claim that the election was rigged and the results may have been wrong. Stupid? Yes, in view of the many audits that confirmed no fraud. A lie? Probably not: I suspect Eastman believed it. Incitement? No way: he’s not calling for “taking back the government” or “fighting”, but calling for Pence (who didn’t have that power) to ask the legislatures to audit the votes.

Yes, Eastman’s claims are ridiculous and partisan, but perfectly legal under the First Amendment. There is no incitement of violence with predictable results, which isn’t free speech (see below). And, as FIRE says, “the First Amendment is clear: A public university cannot cancel a professor’s courses, withdraw his role in organizing campus discussions, and preemptively decline to renew his contract because of public anger over his extramural discussion.”  Of course, UCB is a public university.

But it went ahead and violated the First Amendment.

Initially, the mob demanded that UCB punish Eastman for his role and his remarks. He was defended by the school’s chancellor who said that “the university will not censor a faculty member’s political statements or initiate disciplinary action because it disapproves of them.”

But then public ire grew (sound familiar?), and so UCB thought twice. As FIRE reports:

. . . professor Daniel Jacobson, Director of the Benson Center at CU Boulder, where Eastman is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy, stated that the center “defends the right of its scholars to express unpopular opinions within the limits of the law,” and acknowledged that Eastman “did not call for the violence that occurred after the event, and his speech is protected by the First Amendment.”

On Jan. 10, as public anger over the violence at the Capitol and election rhetoric mounted, Eastman was notified by Jacobson that his classes were cancelled, his responsibilities were rescinded, and his contract would not be renewed. He was forbidden to engage in outreach on behalf of the Benson Center or use campus resources for those purposes, lest he be charged with “insubordination.”

The reasoning? “Terrible press,” the school’s “reputation,” and pressure from “supporters” of the Benson Center, wrote Jacobson.

CU Boulder has asserted that the College of Arts and Sciences typically requires 15 students for undergraduate classes and that Eastman’s courses did not meet that threshold. But FIRE has not been able to locate a policy to that effect and the university’s course registration database reveals dozens of courses in which there are currently fewer than 15 students enrolled. In fact, the university advertises its small class sizes, which it says “can vary from lectures of 200 or more students to smaller classes of 10-20 students.”

“Terrible press” and public pressure are not reasons to fire anybody from a public university.

FIRE wrote a 12-page letter to UCB Chancellor Philip DiStefano saying that their actions violated the First Amendment. It also outlined the legal qualifications for speech to constitute unprotected incitement:

Expression advocating “the use of force or of law violation” amounts to unprotected incitement only where it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Accordingly, the speech must (1) “specifically advocate for listeners to take unlawful action”; (2) be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action”; and (3) be “likely to incite or produce such action.”

Eastman’s speech don’t meet any of those three criteria. Misguided and biased as he was, he cannot be and should not have been punished by UCB, even as a visiting professor. The school should reinstate his job and, if they don’t he has a good case for a lawsuit.

Eastman, by the way, was a tenured professor of law and former dean at the Chapman University School of Law, but had to leave that private university after controversy about his speech at the rally. Now they’re trying to make him leave UCB as well.

Free speech fundamentalism?

January 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

As many on the Left try to dismantle freedom of speech, urging us to jettison the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment so that we can ban “hate speech,” we’ll increasingly see articles like the one below, which calls those of us who adhere to the First Amendment “free speech fundamentalists.” Using the terms “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism,” as Judith Shapiro does in this Inside High Ed op-ed, is a way of denigrating those who adhere strictly to the First Amendment. It’s the same tactic that religionists use when using the term “fundamentalist atheists” for those who don’t accept the notion of a god. But “fundamentalism” is just a red herring here. What is Shapiro’s argument against free speech?

She doesn’t have one, except the usual palaver that it can be offensive and dangerous. And again, without examples, that’s not an argument, or not much of one. We’ve always argued about whether “offense” or “harm” are sufficient reasons to exercise censorship, and I think most of us have concluded that they aren’t.  Banning hurt feelings or the dissemination of misinformation cannot possibly outweigh the benefits of free expression, and, at any rate, who would be the one to determine what speech should be banned? That answer is always this: the person calling for the banning—in this case Shapiro.

Shapiro, by the way, was the former President of Barnard College, so she was an academic heavyweight. She now serves on various academic and think-tank boards and committees.

Click the screenshot to read her short article.

There are three big problems with her article—problems endemic to the writings of those who urge caution about free speech. The first is that she gives no concrete examples of speech that she considers unworthy of being said. Not one example! While she does mention that the punishments of faculty for speaking their minds have been sometimes disproportionate, the main thrust of her article is an unspecific discussion of how free speech can conflict with “other values.”

The second problem, connected with the first, is that she doesn’t limn those areas where one needs to be careful when exercising free speech. The implication is that those are areas that could purvey either “fake news” (i.e., lies) or hurt people’s feelings. But her lack of specificity is annoying—and probably deliberate.

Finally, Shapiro doesn’t mention who is the person or group that should be responsible for deciding what speech is acceptable or unacceptable. The whole piece is maddeningly unspecific, and winds up with the reader thinking that “Shapiro doesn’t really like a hard-line adherence to the First Amendment, but I don’t know why.”

A few quotes to demonstrate the vaporous nature of the argument:

As important as freedom of speech may be, the failure to put it in the context of other values leads us to some serious problems for our society and, more specifically, for our educational institutions.

In terms of our national political life, we have seen the consequences of defending freedom of speech while attending insufficiently to other essential matters, notably the difference between truth and lies. We face a difficult task if we are to rise to the occasion of saving our form of government.

Does this mean that free speech cannot include lies? Well, the law already prohibits some lying like “false advertising” or “defamation,” and we free-speech fundamentalists agree with that. Or does she think that the lies are okay but we need to attend to those lies more? If that’s the case, there are plenty of people attending to them—like the entire liberal media. Free speech is free because you can call out other people’s lies. Holocaust denialism is a good example of that. Many people think that, like some European countries, we should ban such speech, but I feel it’s very important not to, for the arguments back and forth acquaint us with what the evidence really was for the Holocaust (and also “out” those bigots who engage in denialism).

But wait! There’s more!  Tell me what she’s talking about here, since she gives no examples:

As important as freedom of speech may be, the failure to put it in the context of other values leads us to some serious problems for our society and, more specifically, for our educational institutions.

In terms of our national political life, we have seen the consequences of defending freedom of speech while attending insufficiently to other essential matters, notably the difference between truth and lies. We face a difficult task if we are to rise to the occasion of saving our form of government.

Ten to one she’s talking about Trump. Why, then, doesn’t she say so?

And this:

In addition to emphasizing the importance of speech supported by facts, sourcing and an interest in truth, faculty members need to teach their students — and themselves — how to engage most effectively with those holding different views. They should help students resist the attractions of indulging in self-righteous disdainful abuse. Trying to find out why a person holds certain beliefs is a necessary ethnographic step in the process of dialogue.

Again, this is pious moralizing. None of us want to be abusive, and, as I’ve said, psychologizing can often be a distraction from valuable arguments. You don’t need to diagnose Trump’s mental problems to counteract his claims about “fake news” and ballot fraud.

Finally, when one reads “arguments” like the ones below, one wonders whether Dr. Shapiro really wants colleges to abandon the First Amendment. Public universities must of course adhere to its stipulations, but private ones, like Barnard, should as well. Is there a good reason for private colleges to move away from the First Amendment?

Our attitudes to free speech are part of a wider, uncritical cultural celebration of “freedom” abroad in our land. And thus we see many of our fellow citizens refusing to wear masks during a dangerous pandemic and some of our legislators insisting on their right to carry firearms when they report for their day jobs.

An unreflective approach to freedom of speech is often paired with promotion of a “marketplace of ideas.” Let us note, however, that a marketplace is where you can sell anything — anything — that someone else is willing to buy. That may be a less than helpful or inspirational way to think about a democracy, or, for that matter, a society more generally.

We have already followed the path from First Amendment/freedom of speech fundamentalism to Citizens United, a major contribution to turning our democracy into an oligarchy. Will we follow it to where it undermines what education itself is supposed to give to us?

Not wearing masks has nothing to do with “free speech”, though both can be the object of libertarian diatribes. But believe me, it’s not adherence to the First Amendment that makes people go without masks. The same people who urge caution about free speech are the same people who call for more wearing of masks! And, at any rate, bringing up masks is irrelevant to the First Amendment: one has to do with public health, the other with public discourse.

At the end, Shapiro implies that First-Amendment “fundamentalism” has led to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—the 2009 case in which the Supreme Court made a bad decision, arguing that the First Amendment allowed corporations and other groups to make unrestricted campaign contributions. In effect, the 5 Justices construed corporations and associations as “individuals”. This is bad law: a 5-4 decision reflecting a conservative Supreme Court. That’s not the fault of the First Amendment, and has nothing to say about the free speech of individuals. Citizens United is not one stop on a discernible pathway to dismantling our democracy, as Shapiro implies. It was a bad one-off decision that isn’t paving the way for the Third Reich. In fact, I’d say that the path to Reichsville leads through arguments for banning speech.

Does the former president of Barnard not know how to write a coherent essay, or did she just take to the pages of Inside Higher Ed to express vague discomfort with the First Amendment, or is Shapiro covertly suggesting that we might censor some forms of speech now considered legal? I’m not willing to take the “necessary ethnographic step” of finding out what she really believes, and why. Expressing herself clearly is her responsibility, and it’s not my job to figure out what the sweating professor is trying to say*.

* See H. L. Mencken’s wonderful review of Thorstein Veblen’s prose.

Are students immune from criticism because of their identity?

January 27, 2021 • 8:45 am

I always take care when criticizing the public writings of students at my own university. After all, I am on the same campus, may encounter the student, and, although I no longer teach, I’m cognizant of a perceived power imbalance that may intimidate students whom I criticize.

On the other hand, the ideas of a student who writes a public op-ed in a newspaper, as did one undergraduate in a recent issue of the Chicago Maroon (a student paper directed at the University community), constitute a fitting object for criticism—especially if you go after the ideas and not the student’s character.  After all, the Maroon has a comment section, and our University is renowned for encouraging a give-and-take of ideas.

Ergo, I wrote a response to the editorial, for it was something that bothered me: an undergraduate who wanted to do away with free speech on campus because it supposedly propagates hate and white supremacy. Indeed, the student maintained that modern liberal education, as well as the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, were designed to buttress a status quo of bigotry (“By following the Chicago principles, the University effectively legitimizes and encourages students who may share similar bigoted ideologies.”)  This is disturbing, for it seems to be the view of many undergraduates, and I’m not a little worried that one modern trend, especially on the Left, is to dismantle the traditional liberal ideal of free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Today’s post demonstrates what you can expect when you criticize the ideas of an undergraduate of color. This morning I found a comment (posted here only) from one “Olivia.”  The appended email was “”, and the IP address indicates that it comes from—get this—Columbia University.

The comment:

She’s literally 18 years old you fucking freak. You’re letting all these people attack a literal college freshman. A fucking teenager. You wrote an article entirely targeting this one girl and are encouraging her public critique as if she’s not EIGHTEEN. You put a student of color on the stage and are effectively putting her in danger and letting weird adult “intellectuals” villify [sic] and attack her. You’re a fucking weird, fully-grown white guy attacking an asian eighteen year old and saying her experiences as a marginalized person is [sic] not correct because of your dumbass views as a white heterosexual who doesn’t face oppression in those facets. You’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell.

Note four points here. First, the commenter says not a single word about my argument, which was about the need to retain free speech on this campus and others. Ideas are no longer important: identity and power differentials are paramount. What was apparently “targeted” was a student, not her ideas.

Further, the commenter implies that I have no right to comment publicly on a publicly-written editorial because of a status and color differential. The woman was “a fucking teenager”, ergo she should be immune from criticism by someone older—and white. I would have thought that a student writer would welcome engagement with a professor, so long as it was a meaningful engagement in which the student’s ideas are taken seriously.  When students arrive at college, they should be treated as adults and their ideas treated as adult ideas. That’s what college education is all about. Imagine a professor who deferred to the views of her students because they were young! Instead, though, I let “weird adult ‘intellectuals’ engage with the ideas” —exactly as they do in the comments section of the Maroon. (And what are “weird adult intellectuals”?)

Most important, the central point of the comment is an identitarian one: the subject was an “asian eighteen year old”. (I didn’t know how old the woman was, and I don’t really care.) Because of her identity and mine—as a “fully-grown white guy”—she should be immune from criticism. In a way, “Olivia”, as unhinged as he or she may be, is making the student’s point for her: I was engaged in “hate speech” and therefore should “rot in hell.”  And no, I didn’t say that the student’s experiences as a marginalized person were not correct; the argument is about whether people should be censored for speech that others don’t like. That is an “idea”, not a “set of experiences”.

Finally, the writer claims that I have effectively “put the student in danger.” I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. If you feel “endangered” when someone criticizes your published ideas, then you shouldn’t publish your ideas in the first place, especially under your name. This is the conflation of “criticism” with “harm” that we see so often in arguments against free speech.

“Olivia”, in his/her intemperate and rude diatribe, inadvertently demonstrates many of the features of those who oppose free speech: some people have the right to censor others;  that privilege depends on your position in the hierarchy of oppression, in which those on the lower rungs are deemed immune from criticism but able to criticize everyone “higher up”; that hate speech causes harm, which is reason enough to ban it; and, finally, it’s okay to completely demonize one’s opponents (“you’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell”). That last bit reminds one of the criticism atheists get from religionists, which, I suppose, is what people like Olivia resemble. They are ideological fundamentalists.

It’s telling that “Olivia” from Columbia University won’t divulge his/her name. That’s yet another lesson: social media brings out the worst in people, especially when they are allowed to speak anonymously. Aggressive cowards hide behind pseudonyms.

I stand by my arguments in favor of free speech at The University of Chicago, and urge “Olivia” to learn how to debate ideas rather than identities.