Evergreen State College descended into chaos last month after Bret Weinstein, a professor there, objected to a planned “Day of Absence” event where white students and faculty were encouraged to leave campus. The protests against Weinstein for his alleged racism were so vociferous that campus police told him they could not ensure his safety on campus. In addition, threats have forced the cancellation of classes at Evergreen State on several occasions over the past week.
Earlier this year, Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos were unable to speak at Middlebury College and the University of California Berkeley after violence erupted in response to their planned appearances on those campuses.
By now, you’ve probably seen news accounts of the Weinstein, Murray, Coulter, and Yiannopoulos incidents. But here’s a story you’re far less likely to have heard of: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton professor, gave a speech late last month at Hampshire College in which she was highly critical of President Donald Trump. After the content of her speech hit national news outlets, Taylor received threats that led her to cancel several other speaking engagements, including one on a college campus, out of concern for her own safety.
And yet there’s been little of the news coverage or outrage from free speech advocates that these other incidents received.
Why? There are several possible reasons, which I will discuss in greater detail below. But among other things, there may be a double standard at work: Many of the conservative media outlets that extensively covered the Murray, Coulter, and Yiannopoulos controversies suddenly seem a whole lot quieter when the attacks on free speech are coming from the right.
This apparent double standard is unacceptable. Support for free speech should not be a partisan issue. We all depend on the right to free speech to express our views — whatever those views may be, and wherever we may fall on the political spectrum. Too often, however, support for free speech breaks down along political lines, with people expressing outrage when one of their own is silenced while remaining conspicuously silent when the shoe is on the other foot.
At a time when our collective willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints seems to be at a nadir, it is more critical than ever that all of us speak out against censorship and intimidation regardless of the identity of the speakers or the censors.
“I have been threatened with lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head.”
On May 20, professor Taylor gave the commencement address at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. In it, she exhorted Hampshire’s graduating class to fight injustice, discussing many of her concerns with American society and referring to President Trump as “a racist and sexist megalomaniac.”
According to a statement released through her publisher on May 31, after the Fox report aired, Taylor “received more than fifty hate-filled and threatening emails,” some containing “specific threats of violence, including murder.” In Taylor’s own words:
I have been repeatedly called “nigger,” “bitch,” “cunt,” “dyke,” “she-male,” and “coon” — a clear reminder that racial violence is closely aligned with gender and sexual violence. I have been threatened with lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head.
As a result, Taylor canceled two planned appearances at Seattle Town Hall and the University of California San Diego “for fear of my safety and my family’s safety.”
Why is there relatively little coverage of the threats against Taylor?
Sadly, Taylor’s case is just the latest in a string of incidents that paint a bleak picture of the state of free speech on college campuses and beyond. Rather than engage constructively with people who express controversial political or social views, the modus operandi today seems to be to react with threats of violence and protests so disruptive that they actually prevent the speaker from speaking — a phenomenon known as the “heckler’s veto.”
But as the New Republic’s Sarah Jones pointed out, there seems to be much less coverage of Taylor’s story than the stories of Weinstein, Murray, and others.
There are several possible explanations for this, none of which are mutually exclusive.
First, unlike the other incidents, the threats against Taylor appear to have come not from on campus but from the kind of internet trolls to whom we have all become perhaps too inured. People seem to be more surprised when the threats and vitriol come from within an institution of higher education, where one would theoretically expect people to support the expression of a wide range of ideas, and to respond with ad rem rather than ad hominem arguments.
Second, as Jones noted, Taylor canceled the speaking engagements herself, rather than being disinvited or prevented from speaking in the same way as Murray et al. — placing this incident outside of the “disinvitation season” phenomenon that has garnered media attention over the past few years.
But finally, we cannot discount the possibility that there is also a double standard at play.
Much of the recent intolerance of campus speech has come from the left, and has been widely covered by conservative media outlets under the guise of a concern for the state of free speech on campus. Why, then, do these same outlets remain comparatively quiet when the intolerance for speech is coming from the right? Free speech is free speech, and if you believe that the right to openly express controversial political opinions is important, you should be as concerned about Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s right to free speech as you were about Charles Murray’s or Ann Coulter’s — and vice versa.
Support of the right to free speech not only when you agree with the speaker but also — especially — when you disagree with the speaker
I have worked as a free speech advocate for more than 12 years now. In that time, it seems as if the extent to which we insulate ourselves from opposing viewpoints, and demonize the people who hold them, has increased dramatically. Admittedly, this is just my sense of things, but it is a sense I have heard echoed repeatedly by colleagues, friends, family, and virtually anyone with whom I discuss the work I do. It feels as though we have reached a point where many of us, from across the political spectrum, recognize that this is a problem — but it feels insurmountable, and we don’t quite know what to do about it.
If you feel this way, start being a role model now. If you disagree with professor Taylor’s remarks about President Trump but are horrified by the threats made against her, send her a note of support. Share one of the few reports about her story with friends who might not otherwise see it, and let them know what you think. Similarly, if you disagree with Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College but are appalled that police can’t ensure his safety on campus simply because he expressed his views, send him a note of support. Be a vocal supporter of the right to free speech not only when you agree with the speaker, but also — especially — when you disagree with the speaker.
Beyond that, be a model of constructive engagement. One of my favorite sayings, from a book of Jewish ethical teachings called Pirkei Avot, says, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” Talk to people with whom you disagree. Ask them about what they believe. Really listen to what they have to say. Tell them about what you believe. In my experience, many people are hungry for these kinds of thoughtful encounters but have ceased to believe they are possible. Show them otherwise.
Samantha Harris is vice president of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).