The “Campus Muzzle Awards” issued annually by legendary civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate went only to New England academic institutions this year.
Silverglate, a Cambridge-based attorney and author, is co-founder and a member of the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE.
Writing for the website of Boston’s WGBH radio, Silvergate said the 2019 picks come “in a year when there were many outrages committed on college campuses mostly by administrators catering to their own notions of the good, or catering to students’ politically correct whims.”
Silverglate said that at Williams, it’s the students who have become a primary threat to free speech.
In late October, students protested when several Williams professors circulated a petition urging the college to adopt the Chicago Principles, a free speech policy statement that has been endorsed by more than 60 colleges and universities across the U.S.
About 20 Williams students showed up a meeting in which faculty were discussing the Chicago document. Some students waved signs that stated “free speech is hate speech.”
The faculty invited the students into the meeting and allowed them to read their response aloud.
“But the students continued to be disruptive,” Silverglate said, “at one point demanding that white male professors sit down and admit their ‘privilege,’ and at another screaming that faculty members were trying to ‘kill them.'”
Silverglate noted the Chicago Principles are widely considered to be “the gold standard among colleges and universities committed to academic freedom, the principles uphold free expression and rigorous debate, with the understanding that fostering the ability of students to effectively engage in such debate is essential to the educational mission of higher-ed institutions.”
But in their response, Williams students state that the principles “prioritize the protection of ideas over the protection of people.”
They accused right-wing and liberal parties of coopting the term “free speech” and employing it “as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.”
Middlebury administrators canceled a controversial talk only hours before it was scheduled to begin by Polish politician and scholar Ryszard Legutko, who opposes the gay rights movement.
Among academics, Legutko is best known for his book “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies,” which Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule hailed as “the indispensable book about the current crisis of liberalism.”
Legutko’s talk was to be on the relationship between liberty, democracy and totalitarianism. But students were assured that “no questions are out of bounds,” and any questions about Legutko’s views on gay rights could lead to “an interesting exchange about the role of Western values in Poland.”
A student protest was organized featuring a “celebration of queer identity,” with plans to hold signs, play music, dance and pass out pamphlets about Legutko’s views.
Middlebury administrators responded by cancelling Legutko’s talk at the last minute, citing “safety and security risks” but providing little supporting evidence.
Roger Williams University
Silverglate noted that one of the more blatant forms of campus censorship is administrators or students attempting to conceal unfavorable publicity by stealing or trashing student newspapers.
In late February, a Roger Williams student was caught on a security camera throwing away copies of The Hawks’ Herald.
Later, two students confessed they removed from newsstands and discarded about 100 copies of the paper. According to the Student Press Law Center, the students were upset about a front-page report of a busted house party during which two students were tasered by police.
In April, as recently admitted students and their parents were visiting campus for “Welcome Day,” the campus paper Mass Media happened to feature a front-page story about the university’s slow response to a dorm hazmat incident that resulted in a student being transported to the hospital.
The admissions staff certainly was not happy about the unflattering story displayed at newsstands across the campus on that day, Silverglate noted. So a couple of rogue staffers hatched a plan to eliminate the problem.
From the Student Press Law Center: “Admissions staff, concerned about the university’s image, asked editor Kelsey Hale if the paper could hold off on filling stands [during Welcome Day].” When Hale refused, “staffers put a coat over a prominent stand. When Hale found out and removed it, [the staffers] flipped the newspapers over.”
And some 200 copies were missing from other newsstands that rarely go empty.
In a reversal of the usual scenario, the administration stood up for academic freedom, while a student group sued to stop a panel discussion from going forward.
In April, a panel was organized by the Media Education Foundation, a local group chaired by UMass Amherst faculty member Sut Jhally.
“All four of the panelists were of a single mind on the focal issue, a claim that pro-Israel groups have assiduously worked to silence pro-Palestinian voices in what is supposed to be a land blessed by the ability of a multitude of views to find expression in the great free marketplace of ideas,” Silverglate wrote.
In reaction to the one-sidedness of the panel, student members of the pro-Israeli group UMass Amherst Student Alliance for Israel voiced opposition.
Eventually, the Student Alliance for Israel filed a lawsuit in the Suffolk County Superior Court seeking to force the panel’s sponsor to move the program off-campus.
The lawsuit had virtually no chance of succeeding in a state court in Massachusetts, because the state constitution, Silverglate said, “offers a particularly potent level of protection for free speech – considerably stronger than the protection conferred by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
“This imbroglio grows out of an erroneous yet widespread belief among students that the law protects them from offense,” he said.
Silverglate observed that if the program was a pro-Israeli event featuring a panel of Zionists, the Palestinians likely would go to court seeking an injunction.