What Wellesley Students and Faculty Got Wrong About Campus Free Speech

, Richard Cravatts, Leave a comment

image screenshot from Wellesley College’s YouTube page

Something alarming is happening on campuses, fueled by tendentious and morally self-righteous progressive students, and some faculty, who have displayed a shocking disregard for the university’s cardinal virtue of free expression, deciding themselves who may say what about whom on their respective campuses—and purging from campuses those ideas they have deemed too hateful, too unsafe, too incendiary to tolerate or to allow to be heard.

Until now, these champions of the aggrieved have been less than transparent in both their motives and intentions, disingenuously asserting that their efforts to suppress the speech of those with opposing conservative views is done to protect perceived victim groups. Ideas which are contrary to these social justice warriors’ acceptable worldview are dismissed as contemptible—not even worthy of being debated—or are neutralized and debased by designations which characterize it as ‘hate speech’ because it is, depending on the victim groups attacked, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, or homophobic. So sure of their righteousness and ideology are they that they do not even try to hide their preconceived notions and evident bias against ideas they have decided are beyond the pale or unworthy of being given voice.

Feelings, not ideas, are what count; emotionality now trumps rationality.

The defective rationale for the thuggish substitution of the suppression of other people’s speech for what is supposed to be two-sided academic dialogue was just revealed at Wellesley College, where both students and, unusually, faculty publicly articulated the shocking notion that only certain speech is to be permitted—namely, those ideas which promote and support progressive liberal views—and that opposing views, and the conservative speakers who utter them, are not even deemed worthy of being able to share their ideas on the Wellesley campus.

In an astoundingly facile editorial in the April 12th issue of the Wellesley News, the paper’s editors responded to recent debates over free speech on that campus, precipitated, somewhat ironically, by a series of lectures as part of Wellesley’s Censorship Awareness Week, during which one controversial speaker, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, critiqued the notion that American campuses are awash with sexual assault. In her book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, in fact, Kipnis asserted the view that, “We seem to be breeding a generation of students, mostly female students, deploying Title IX to remedy sexual ambivalences or awkward sexual experiences, and to adjudicate relationship disputes post-breakup — and campus administrators are allowing it.”

That opinion was apparently intolerable to Wellesley’s students, and some faculty, who refused to acknowledge Kripnis’s notions, theories that contradict their preconceived worldview that men are predatory and women have to be protected from them, something she describes as “neo-sentimentality about female vulnerability.”

Alluding to the Kripnis visit, the editorial attempted to distinguish the difference between free speech and what they described as “hate speech,” mistakenly asserting that “Wellesley students are generally correct in their attempts to differentiate what is viable discourse from what is just hate speech,” and that “our Wellesley community will not stand for hate speech, and will call it out when possible.”

More ominously, the editors wrote, “Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech.” Why is that? Because, the editorial contended, that “rhetoric” is not protected or allowable speech at all; “it is hate speech.”

Further, in language that would come as a surprise to constitutional scholars, the editorial finally revealed what this approach was all about: it embraced Marcuse’s idea of “repressive tolerance,” where weak, marginalized, victim groups are given access to expression at the expense of opposing thought. “The spirit of free speech is to protect the suppressed,” the editorial fatuously asserted, “not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.” That, of course, is precisely what the First Amendment was not designed to do, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously observed when he said that speech protections are specifically for controversial, unpopular views, “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

What is the solution to eliminating so-called hate speech at Wellesley? According to the editorial, it is a forced re-education, so that speech transgressors can be shown the light and taught, indeed coerced, to adopt acceptable views. If they cannot or refuse to learn the error of their thought, there will be potential censure and punishment; “if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted [emphasis added]” and “it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions.”

It is one thing when intellectually-arrogant, morally-narcissistic students take it upon themselves to act as current-day Torquemadas and propose speech policies which are contradictory to what any university would normally seek to attain; namely, spirited intellectual debate from opposing views, with the hope that the truth will evidence itself, in Mill’s phrase, after “collision with error.” But this alarming editorial came on the heels of, and seems to have been inspired by, a March 20th email distributed to the Wellesley community by six self-righteous professors (members of the tellingly named Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity (CERE)) in which they rail against “several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs [who] have presented their ideas at Wellesley.”

According to these progressive professors, “There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley.” How does this imposition show itself? For one thing, they contended, “dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words.” More absurdly, they continued, it is hurtful to students to expect them to confront opposing views with ideas of their own, and this necessity (which, one would think, is the reason a student even attends college) means that students will actually have to engage in dialogue and debate and waste time by countering what these professors have audaciously proclaimed are less than worthy ideas. Students “often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the [controversial] speakers’ arguments,” the professors wrote.

The notion that bringing speakers to campus with diverse views can actually lead to a more complete worldview and diversity of thought apparently is foreign to the professors, who are so concerned with protecting the sensibilities of perceived campus victim groups that they condemned those who invited controversial speakers in the first place, who “in their zeal for promoting debate . . . might, in fact, stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups.”

Most egregious is the suggestion by this group of faculty that speakers be vetted prior to being invited to Wellesley, and that only those with progressive ideologies, acceptable views, be invited to speak. “This is not a matter of ideological bias,” the faculty contended, and then immediately revealed that ideological bias on their part is precisely what will influence who should speak and who should not. “Pseudoscience suggesting that men are more naturally equipped to excel in STEM fields than women, for example,” they declare without the benefit of being neuroscientists themselves, “has no place at Wellesley.” “Similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers are equally inappropriate,” meaning that any ideas challenging preconceived progressive notions of social justice and oppression will not be welcome at Wellesley.

And in case students are not comfortable with screening offensive speakers “whose ideas would be painful,” the six professors thoughtfully offer themselves as a thought tribunal, writing that, “We in CERE are happy to serve as a sounding board when hosts are considering inviting controversial speakers, to help sponsors think through the various implications of extending an invitation.”

This is, of course, a breathtaking display of pretentiousness and audacity, by both the professors and the Wellesley News editors, who have taken it upon themselves to decide which ideas can be heard and which can, and should, be suppressed—all in the name of protecting the sensibilities of victim groups on campus. That is a dangerous notion, and one that contradicts the primary goal of the university, which is the unfettered exchange of many views in the “marketplace of ideas.”

More importantly, it is not the role of universities to create “safe spaces” in which students are sheltered from any ideas that might challenge their pre-conceived notions; it is not the business of universities to insure that no one’s feelings are hurt. Yale University’s insightful 1974 Woodward Report on free speech affirmed this very point, suggesting that “. . . [a university] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect . . . It will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”

Unfortunately, many on the left believe that their progressive views are virtuous and moral, and those of conservatives are regressive, cruel, and unjust. The moral rectitude of these academics is not only ill-conceived, but startling and offensive. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” observed literary critic C.S. Lewis, who bemoaned exactly this type of individual, “omnipotent moral busybodies . . . who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.