What is the role of professors in standing up to the ever-more-intolerant, increasingly-anti-free-speech climate on so many campuses nationwide?
“It’s so much easier to sigh, roll your eyes and move on,” writes Jonathan Zimmerman at Inside Higher Ed. But that is a worrying trend, he writes: “On questions of free speech, our campuses are deeply divided. But only one side typically speaks up, while the other keeps quiet.”
Citing the recent case of James Rosen, who cancelled a class due to student backlash after he used the term “nigger” as part of a thought experiment, Zimmerman points out: While a small fraction of students were vocally offended by Rosen’s using the word, “the rest of the students sat on their hands,” with none coming to Rosen’s defense. “Surely, there were people in the class — which, again, was focused on hate speech — who believed it was legitimate for Rosen to use the N-word in a discussion about the themes of the course,” Zimmerman writes. “They apparently just kept that opinion to themselves.”
“And that rendered them ‘complicit’ in the incident, to borrow a popular buzzword from today’s political lexicon,” he continues. “They were silent partners in the humiliation of Lawrence Rosen. And they should be ashamed about that.”
“But not as ashamed as professors, especially those who fashion themselves as champions of free speech,” Rosen added:
Last September, for example, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a joint statement denouncing the “harassment” of faculty members for controversial comments made in public speeches, social media and the classroom.
The statement was occasioned by attacks upon Syracuse University communications professor Dana Cloud, who tweeted negatively about a protest called March Against Sharia. After right-wing activists called for her dismissal, the faculty organizations rallied to her side.
“Free speech is and will remain one of our key values,” declared Syracuse University president Kent Syverud, in a comment that the joint statement quoted. “Our faculty must be able to say and write things — including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable — up to the very limits of the law.”
So where were the faculty voices rising up to defend Lawrence Rosen? For the most part, they’ve gone silent. It’s a lot easier to defend a professor who’s being trolled by Islamophobes on the internet than it is to speak up on behalf of a colleague under face-to-face attack from students, especially if you might have to face their wrath down the road.
Zimmerman points out in fairness that the chair of Rosen’s department and the president of Princeton both came to his defense, while “on a few other campuses, students and faculty members have begun to challenge the campus bullies.” Indeed, Zimmerman notes, “there are rumblings of a new nationwide student movement in favor of free speech. That was the rallying cry of student activists in the 1960s, of course, starting with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. And last May, students from 20 colleges around the country met in Chicago to try to revive the tradition.”
This revival is critical, Zimmerman argues: Just as the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing, as Burke taught us, the only thing necessary for the triumph of censorship is for the rest of us to keep quiet. Speak up, people. Our freedom of speech depends on it.”
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