What speech on college campuses is free speech?
If you’ve been following media coverage of college campus unrest over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking the sole threat to freedom of speech on the quad in 2017 comes from a left-wing movement aimed at crushing any dissent from liberal values. Protests leading to the cancellation of talks by Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley, in February and April respectively, received breathless and sensationalized media coverage.
But threats to “free speech” are treated differently in the media when you’re on the left—and particularly so for campus speech. When students are stopped from supporting Palestine, stopped from protesting perceived faculty racism, or when prominent left-wing voices are silenced by threats from speaking to students, corporate media are mostly silent. Media handling of campus controversies indicates a double standard on college speech that falls along political lines.
Nowhere has this divide been clearer in recent months than at Evergreen State College, a small liberal arts school in Olympia, Washington. This May, students at the college found themselves the focus of attention when racial tensions on campus spilled into the national media.
When marginalized communities suggested white students and faculty leave campus for the college’s annual Day of Absence, biology professor Bret Weinstein objected. Traditionally during the Day of Absence, students and faculty of color leave campus for the day for offsite workshops and classes. The idea for the event comes from Douglas Turner Ward’s play of the same name, in which white residents in a small town wake up to realize all the African-American citizens have disappeared. The Day of Absence has been an Evergreen tradition since the 1970s.
This year, students of color proposed that white students and faculty might benefit from leaving campus on the Day of Absence to learn about racism. According to The Stranger (6/14/17), the event proved so popular that the 200-seat space reserved for the off-campus activities had a waitlist, and some students even had to be turned away from the events. Some in the Evergreen community, however, heard the call for the altered event as a demand— and their reaction made things worse.
Weinstein used less-than-tactful language to protest the new spin on the Day of Absence (suggesting that white professors were victims of “a de facto hierarchy based on skin color”) in emails that were published by the Cooper Point Journal (3/20/17), a student paper. While Weinstein said he had no problem with previous events, when people of color “voluntarily absent[ed] themselves from the shared space to think about their vital and under-appreciated roles,” to encourage white people to be the ones to step away and think about their role was “an act of oppression in and of itself.”
Protests followed, including a disruption of one of the professor’s classes that spilled into the hallway and was caught on camera. The images of Weinstein being harangued by Evergreen students caught the attention of the fringe conservative media. From there, it was only a short jump for Weinstein to appear on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight (5/25/17), where the host listened with concern as Weinstein related his tale of woe, in a segment labeled “Campus Craziness.”
Five days later, another major Murdoch property, the Wall Street Journal (5/30/17), provided a platform for a Weinstein op-ed headlined “The Campus Mob Came for Me—and You, Professor, Could Be Next.”
“Whites were asked to leave for a ‘Day of Absence,’” Weinstein’s chilling account began. “I objected. Then 50 yelling students crashed my class.”
Not to be outdone, the New York Times devoted two allotments of its valuable opinion-page real estate to tut-tutting the protesters. Opinion staff editor Bari Weiss (6/1/17) scolded Evergreen students, saying that “reasonable debate has made itself absent at Evergreen.” And columnist Frank Bruni (6/3/17) used his Sunday column to bemoan the “campus inquisitions” that had used accusations of racism as “a retreat from anything that we could really call ‘discourse.’”
You wouldn’t know it to read these accounts of the events in Olympia, but the unrest on campus wasn’t the only issue brewing under the surface in the Pacific Northwest. Indications of what was coming were clear shortly after Weinstein’s May 25 appearance on Carlson’s show. The next day in Portland, Oregon, two hours to the south of Olympia, a white supremacist named Jeremy Christian murdered two men and injured a third when they intervened in his verbal abuse of two Muslim women on public transit.
A week later, on June 1, the same day the Times published Weiss’ op-ed, a man phoned in what Olympia police described as a “credible threat” to the campus. It prompted an evacuation of the college that lasted through Friday, June 2. To his credit, Bruni mentioned the incident in his June 3 piece—though he said the threat’s “exact relationship to the protests was unclear,” despite the caller having referred to Olympia as a “communist scumbag town” when he made his mass-murder threat, according to audio obtained by KIRO 7 News on June 2.
This wasn’t in a vacuum, either; Evergreen administrators had sent out a warning to students the night before that they could be threatened as a result of coverage from right-wing media:
Earlier today we learned of a KIRO radio broadcast in which local conservative talk-show host Dori Monson interviewed Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer, a group scheduled to convene for a free-speech rally in Portland on Sunday, June 4. In this interview, Gibson implies that attention will be directed to Evergreen following the Portland rally.
Continued threats shut down the school again for a few hours on June 5, and have forced the college to move its graduation ceremonies to its satellite campus in nearby Tacoma.
Yet despite these threats to the student body, there has been no breathless coverage from Fox News, no space on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page for targeted members of the Evergreen community, no opinion pieces in the New York Times about the threat to the free speech of the left-leaning students.
What there has been is space for more essays and reactions over the past weeks to Weinstein’s supposed silencing—though the professor appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience (6/2/17), one of the nation’s most popular podcasts, and again on Tucker Carlson (6/12/17) for a second round of “Campus Craziness.” Despite his concerns for “safety,” Weinstein made no mention of the multiple threats to the college.
The victim-blaming has only been more extreme at two of the right’s “prestige” publications, both of which have recently published articles on the unrest that elide questions of cause-and-effect to tell a simpler story. At the Weekly Standard (6/19/17), Charlotte Allen misdescribed the threats against students that shut down the school as “the activities of the 200 or so protesters [that] culminated in a literal shutdown of the college.” At the National Review (6/8/17), Tiana Lowe said that
the Evergreen State College mob has incited violence against a professor, gotten said professor, Bret Weinstein, to flee campus in fear for his physical safety, inflicted $10,000 in property damage on campus, shut down classes, and forced graduation to be held off-campus as a result.
Without any space for a counter-narrative in any media with substantial reach, this obfuscation of the nuanced facts of the situation will go unchallenged.
This is part of a pattern. Take the treatment of Princeton African-American studies professor Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor, who was forced to cancel appearances on the West Coast after her criticism of Trump at a Hampshire commencement speech drew the attention of Fox News (5/28/17) and its audience.
“Since last Friday,” Taylor wrote in a statement explaining the cancellation, “I have received more than 50 hate-filled and threatening emails.”
Yet Taylor’s cancellation was not a major topic of news coverage, and Taylor was given no space in the country’s newspapers to explain how these violent right-wing threats were infringing on her freedom of speech. The highest-profile coverage of Taylor’s harassment came from the New Republic‘s Sarah Jones (6/2/17) and the Guardian‘s Steven Trasher (6/5/17), both of whom questioned the inattention to Taylor’s First Amendment rights from the most vocal defenders of free speech in the mainstream media.
It’s not only Taylor, of course—New York’s Fordham University banned the group Students for Justice in Palestine from establishing a chapter at the school without giving a coherent reason. That’s a sadly familiar story on college campuses in the US, where courses deemed too pro-Palestinian are banned, professors can be denied tenure because of tweets condemning the 2014 war on Gaza, and even campus activism against the occupation is subject to censorship.
There’s little mainstream media coverage of these instances of speech suppression, though. Indeed, the actions against Palestinian solidarity on campus by schools like Fordham have gone on under a virtual media blackout.
Compare that with the plethora of think pieces, longreads and sensational reporting devoted to the threat from the left to the free speech of the right, and you have some idea of the double standard at play here. Apparently there are two tiers of speech in America, at least as far as the media are concerned—that worth protecting, and that of the left.
The author is an alumnus of both Evergreen State College (B.A., 2010) and Fordham University (M.A., 2014).