Editor’s note: Nat Hentoff collaborated with his son, Nick Hentoff, on this week’s column.
Hostility to the exercise of free speech on American college campuses is nothing new. But what happened at Yale University, the University of Missouri and other colleges over the past two weeks is something new and frightening. The suppression of speech in academia has begun to spiral out of control.
Nicholas Christakis is a professor at Yale who lives with his wife in a student residence hall on campus. An internationally renowned physician and sociologist, Dr. Christakis was surrounded by dozens of angry students who showered him with curses and threats. Dr. Christakis’ offense? He refused to publicly apologize for his wife’s email that defended free speech and urged tolerance of offensive Halloween costumes.
Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was on the Yale campus to attend a free-speech symposium and witnessed the incident. In the video Lukianoff posted on FIRE’s website, Christakis appears on the verge of being physically assaulted.
“Nicholas addressed the crowd for more than an hour, even after it became clear that nothing short of begging for forgiveness would satisfy them,” Lukianoff wrote in the Washington Post. “I’ve witnessed some intense campus disputes during my 14 years fighting for free speech, but nothing like this.”
The next evening – at a William F. Buckley Jr. Program conference on free speech that had been planned months in advance – Greg Lukianoff’s speech was interrupted by a student who rushed the podium, shouting, before he was dragged out of the building by campus police. Attendees then braved a gauntlet of angry Yale students who cursed and ridiculed them. The Yale Daily News reported that “several attendees were spat on as they left.”
At the University of Missouri, a student photographer freelancing for ESPN was confronted by a mob of angry anti-racism protesters who tried to eject him from the public commons area where they had gathered. After he refused to leave, the students begin a coordinated effort to both psychologically and physically intimidate the reporter into leaving.
The protesters subjected him to intense ridicule, sometimes chanting in unison, as they gradually forced him backwards. They then began to falsely accuse the reporter of the very conduct they themselves were directing against him.
MU’s student body vice president later tried to justify the students’ self-imposed restrictions on the press during an interview on MSNBC. She suggested that the First Amendment “creates a hostile and unsafe learning environment.”
Later that same week, a Christian street preacher, speaking within the campus “free speech circle,” was physically assaulted and had his microphone appropriated by an anti-racism protester.
At Amherst College, a student group called Amherst Uprising issued a list of demands to administrators that included individual public apologies for what they claimed was a hostile environment of ethnocentric racism on campus. The list also included a demand for a written statement from administrators acknowledging that students who distribute leaflets defending free-speech rights are subject to disciplinary action for being “racially insensitive,” and that any students disciplined for such an offense must “attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”
At Cornell, a well-meaning white student was forced to issue a public apology after he scheduled his own anti-racism protest without first getting the approval of the Black Student Union. He was accused, in multiple social media posts, of mocking the efforts of the BSU.
One commentator put him on notice that “if you are to be in (sic) ally, you have to acknowledge what you’ve done to hurt us.” Within hours of scheduling the event, the offending student canceled the protest and issued a public apology thanking his critics “for calling me out on my ignorance.”
These are not isolated incidents, but represent the organized adoption of mass public shaming tactics. Mass public shaming – traditionally used by autocratic regimes to silence their critics – is a particularly insidious form of censorship. It is designed to chill future speech by humiliating the speaker. Psychological manipulation and intimidation are used to impose forced speech as a means of social control.
Universities in the United States should not tolerate or appease such public shaming techniques. In his March 20, 2015, New York Times op-ed, “China’s Tradition of Public Shaming Thrives,” author Murong Xuecun writes that “cases of public shaming show us how in the name of some great cause, individual rights, dignity and privacy can all be sacrificed.”
President Obama recently offered some advice to students and faculty who feel that the First Amendment creates a hostile and unsafe learning environment.
“You don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas.” Obama said during an interview last Sunday on ABC News. “Just out-argue them. Beat ’em. Make the case as to why they’re wrong. Win over adherents. That’s how things work in a democracy.”
Next Week: What Yale and other universities must do to protect free speech on campus.