‘Snowflakes fall everywhere’: when ‘censorship’ comes from the right

Chelsea Manning case brings calls in US to acknowledge attempts from right to silence campus free speech

September 20, 2017
Free speech

Last week, the University of California, Berkeley spent $600,000 (£443,000) on security to ensure that Ben Shapiro, a conservative writer, could speak on the campus without being disrupted. Also this month, Charles Murray, whose research is blasted by many as racist, appeared at Harvard University. Security was tight there, and some protested outside, but Mr Murray spoke without incident.

In both cases, the universities rejected requests by some that the appearances be called off. In both cases, the speakers praised the universities for the way that they handled the events.

The appearances don’t quite fit the narrative – widely in play after Mr Murray was shouted down at Middlebury College in the spring – that it’s impossible for controversial conservative speakers to appear on campuses these days, and that colleges won’t protect the right to free speech. Indeed, since the Murray incident at Middlebury, he has given speeches at several institutions – such as Columbia and Indiana Universities – with protests outside and heavy security but no disruptions. And when some students tried to disrupt his talk at Villanova University, campus police intervened, removed those disrupting, and the talk went on.

Berkeley – while bickering with organisers of events that will bring a who’s who of far-right speakers in the coming weeks over details on logistics for two of the 12 events – is defending the right of speakers to appear and holding forums on the value of free speech.

So who is getting blocked from speaking on campus this month?

First there is Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in military prison for sharing classified documents with Wikileaks before President Obama commuted her sentence. Last week Harvard rescinded her invitation to be a visiting fellow at its Institute of Politics. (While “visiting fellow” sounds like a visiting professorship, it is actually an extended speaking gig in which participants from the world of politics spend about a week interacting with Harvard students and faculty members.)

Then came the news that the seminary affiliated with the Catholic University of America had revoked an invitation to the Reverend James Martin to speak on the campus. Father Martin is the author of several books, most recently, Building a Bridge, which argues that the Roman Catholic Church can find positive ways to interact with gay and lesbian Catholics. The book has been praised by many church leaders, including by bishops. But some conservative Catholic groups have attacked the book.

In the cases of both Ms Manning and Father Martin, the decisions to revoke invitations followed outrage over the invitations being extended in the first place. Some Republican politicians went so far as to suggest that Harvard should lose all public funding for a decision to invite Ms Manning.

In the case of Father Martin, websites such as Church Militant accused him of being “a liar leading these precious people to perdition”.

In statements announcing the decisions to revoke the invitations, both Harvard and Catholic’s seminary cited the reactions to the invitations. Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in a statement revoking the invitation to Ms Manning: “I see more clearly now that many people view a visiting fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations.”

The seminary explained its revoked invitation by saying that it “has experienced increasing negative feedback from various social media sites regarding the seminary’s invitation.”

Many of the Republican politicians and conservative pundits who have spoken out against withdrawn invitations or efforts to shout down speakers, by or at the behest of the left, have been silent.

Some groups have been consistent in speaking out against efforts to block speakers on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example, published a blog post on Friday noting that many view Ms Manning as a whistle-blower deserving of praise. Further, while critics of the invitation to her said that Harvard should never invite someone who may have violated the law, the blog post noted that this may not be a precedent Harvard wants to set.

“Honours are often bestowed by universities, including Harvard, on controversial people – including people whose decisions and actions are seen as having caused the deaths of others around the world,” FIRE wrote. “Berkeley counts among its professors John C. Yoo, whose 2002 memorandum was seen by many as authorising the United States to torture detainees. Many view Henry Kissinger – a former member of Harvard’s faculty who has spoken at the university repeatedly – as a war criminal who should not be afforded a ‘platform’ at Harvard.”

The FIRE analysis went on to say: “Hearing from controversial speakers with diverse views is a social good, and universities must not bow to public pressure in granting their students the ability to hear from – and challenge – speakers whose decisions and actions have shaped the world, for better or for worse. This is how students learn from history and how to criticise newsworthy figures.”

John K. Wilson, one of the editors of the American Association of University Professors’ “Academe” blog, regularly criticises any attempts to block speech on campus. He said via email that it is frustrating that so many observers characterise this issue as one that is a problem only with the left.

“I want to write a book titled ‘Snowflakes Fall Everywhere’,” he said. “There are plenty of people, on the left and the right, who want to silence free speech. So why does almost all of the media attention focus on the small number of leftist censors?”

Mr Wilson added: “Too often, people excuse or ignore censorship when it’s coming from people they support. I find it very common to have my allies in academic freedom battles radically shift all the time. When I defend Steven Salaita [who lost a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], all of the leftists join in and the conservatives bend over backwards to find some excuse for why academic freedom doesn’t apply.

“When I defend John McAdams [who is fighting to keep a job at Marquette University], the conservatives discover academic freedom and the liberals search for every reason to justify the administration’s repression. The greatest threat to free speech on campus is hypocrisy, when defenders of free expression with good intentions fail to vigorously apply their own principles to people they despise. That divides what should be a united front for free speech and makes it possible for censorship to thrive.”

Perhaps the most striking comment on how the withdrawn invitations last week are not consistent with what many have been saying about campus speech came from John Garvey, president of Catholic University. His statement noted that Father Martin spoke at the university last year, and said that the university officials “regret the implication that Catholic University supported [the] decision.”

“The campaigns by various groups to paint Father Martin’s talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations,” said Garvey. “Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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