College behind ‘Day of Absence’ changes marketing after scrutiny
OLYMPIA, Wash. – An unofficial motto of The Evergreen State College, related to our geoduck mascot (below), is “dig deep.”
It means that we dig deep within ourselves to find deeper truth, much like how the large saltwater clam native to the Pacific Northwest digs itself deep into the sand.
When the public college invited a veteran civil rights lawyer to address the community Monday, it ended up digging itself even deeper into the hole it created last spring around the controversial annual “Day of Absence.”
The topic for Alan Levine’s lunch lecture was originally advertised as “Campus Protests and the Fight against White Supremacy: How the Right Turned a Nationwide Movement Against Racism into a Debate about the First Amendment.”
After I started asking questions about the topic, the marketing suddenly changed to a much less specific and less divisive topic.
Yet the lecture eventually given by Levine stuck with the original: White supremacists have usurped the campus free speech movement, and it’s lawful and noble to censor them.
‘White supremacy’ disappears from marketing
Evergreen State is known for peculiar flyers, but the listing for Levine’s Jan. 22 talk nonetheless stood out for implying that our basic First Amendment freedoms give aid and comfort to white supremacists.
By all accounts, Levine is an old-school liberal who recognizes free speech includes even the most uncomfortable and odious speech. He left a job on Wall Street to represent civil rights activists during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and later directed the New York Civil Liberties Union’s project on student rights.
The college invited Levine under the umbrella of “Community Forward” (inset), an in-house initiative spearheaded by George Freeman, academic dean of evening and weekend studies.
The initiative is intended to create reasoned dialogue, and it reflects Freeman’s own personal example of rational and open-minded discourse.
I shared my concerns Jan. 8 about the propriety of the topic in Community Forward with Evergreen President George Bridges. By Jan. 16, “white supremacy” had been taken off the promotional materials.
An internal bulletin board post said Levine’s topic was “campus protests and free speech,” and a new flyer didn’t even mention campus protests: “A Lecture by Alan Levine, Civil Rights Attorney.”
It beckoned students to “Learn more about how your civil rights apply to campus life!”
When I talked to Dean Freeman Jan. 17 about how white supremacy ended up in his event series and why the marketing suddenly changed, he admitted he had no direct involvement with the Levine event and didn’t know how it got shoehorned into Community Forward.
Another original flyer for the event later surfaced.
Public records request
For the next several days before the Levine event, I labored in vain to get a clear answer as to why the marketing for Levine’s event had changed and which lecture he would actually give: white supremacy or civil rights on campus?
Neither Academic Dean Therese Saliba, who was directly involved in bringing Levine to campus, nor Student Conflict Resolution Coordinator Andrea Seabert Olsen, who announced the “campus protest” event Jan. 16 on the bulletin board, answered my questions.
Faced with now-familiar administration stonewalling, I filed a public records request Jan. 16 for all records concerning Levine and his scheduled lecture going back to September.
The public records office warned me “it could take up to 90 days to begin providing” relevant records, but offered an update on the timeline “on or around” Feb. 15.
Against this backdrop of mystery, confusion and official silence, I attended Levine’s lunch lecture on Monday. In the event Levine actually stuck to civil rights on campus, I prepared a question about the overall lack of respect for Second Amendment rights on campus.
It was all for naught.
It’s legitimate to ban Halloween costumes
Contradicting the hastily whitewashed marketing for the event starting a week earlier, Levine argued in favor of suppressing viewpoints that are “oppressive” or “hurtful” in the name of fighting white supremacists.
Jarringly, he couched it in the language of his free-speech heroes of yore.
To illustrate his point that suppression of speech can be legitimate, Levine cited the 2015 outrage at Yale over students’ Halloween costumes. (A professor had asked students to consider how policing each other’s Halloween costumes feeds into the bureaucratic “exercise of implied control over college students.”)
Most of his examples, in fact, concerned private colleges and their greater leeway to suppress the expression of students.
Only at the end of his talk did Levine clarify that his preferred restrictions on speech can’t be legally applied on public campuses like Evergreen. Even then, Levine said he would defend a public college that sought to restrict what Halloween costumes students could wear.
Levine’s most consistent theme, however, was that conservatives’ embrace of free speech is rooted in white supremacy and can’t be disentangled from it, and the progressive left fully possesses the moral high ground.
‘The professor who will not be named’ (Bret Weinstein)
The civil rights lawyer who once defended the associational rights of student protesters said that colleges maintain white supremacy through social clubs, unequal distribution of funds and lack of diversity training.
He did not mention that colleges heavily fund student groups based on gender expression, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other identity-based or affinity groups.
Criticizing colleges for coddling college students also reinforces white supremacy, and failure to support Palestinian activism on campus suppresses the free speech of progressives, Levine claimed.
He approved of the heckler’s veto used by protesters against Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled appearance at the University of California-Berkeley a year ago and against Charles Murray at Middlebury College last spring. Both speakers practiced “harmful speech,” he said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends free speech on campus across the ideological spectrum, is funded by “racist right wingers,” Levine said, naming the “Koch brothers.” (FIRE has received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.)
The lawyer also said offensive speech can be regulated via the “fighting words” doctrine, which has long been dead letter at the Supreme Court.
Levine even refused to name the most famous recent member of the Evergreen community, ex-professor Bret Weinstein. His disputes with the administration over last year’s Day of Absence – when white community members were asked to leave campus – and the student protests that followed led to months of negative attention on the college.
Levine alleged that video footage of spring protests was “carefully edited” and referred to Weinstein as “the professor who will not be named.”
Weinstein confronts Levine
Unbeknownst to Levine, Weinstein was in the audience for his evening lecture on campus.
In a lengthy tweet thread Wednesday, Weinstein said Levine was invited “to publicly rationalize deplatforming” and that he “nastily” caricatured academics who have publicly defended free speech, including Nicholas and Erika Christakis at Yale.
Weinstein’s summary indicates that Levine stuck to the same arguments and examples he gave at lunch.
Evergreen is desperately trying to escape the hole it dug for itself last year. But it refuses to comprehend what occurred, and so it digs down, not out.@EvergreenStCol admin brought in constitutional lawyer, Alan Levine, to publicly rationalize deplatforming.
I went. pic.twitter.com/yxFIvzFj6e
— Bret Weinstein (@BretWeinstein) January 24, 2018
Without Levine apparently recognizing him, Weinstein asked the lawyer “Who gets to decide what ideas may be expressed on a campus?” (I asked the same question at lunch via question cards given to the audience, but my card wasn’t given to Levine.)
Paraphrasing Levine’s answer, Weinstein wrote: “Not I, because I am a white man. Shutting viewpoints down is the province of people who’ve faced a history of oppression.”
The Board of Trustees (who should have fired Bridges in May) is still mysteriously absent. @GovInslee who lives and works just a few miles from @EvergreenStCol, and to whom the Trustees are formally responsible, is still nowhere to be found.
Where are the adults? Where?
— Bret Weinstein (@BretWeinstein) January 24, 2018
By caricaturing those who support free speech as hatemongers and white supremacists, Levine’s talks have pushed the campus community backward.
Months of dialogue and purported efforts to heal divisions have been destroyed, individual agency has been stripped away, and people again are valued only by which identity boxes they can check off. Oppression equals power and moral authority over the purportedly privileged.
It’s time to stop digging deeper, and start climbing upward.
UPDATE: The original multicolor flyer for Levine’s talk surfaced after this article was published. It has been added to the article.
IMAGES: Evergreen State College, Steve Coffman