Earlier this year in May, an associate professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara removed anti-abortion signs from protesters, took them to her office and destroyed them. According to an article in the Santa Barbara Independent, she said she was “triggered” and offended by the imagery on the posters and felt that the protestors had no right to be there. Earlier this month, in Montclair State University in New Jersey, a pro-Palestinian student organization passed out pamphlets but was fined because of a complaint and told they were not allowed to take political stances. This decision was reversed later. In June, a student at University of Oregon was charged with conduct violations, including harassment, when she shouted, “I hit it first!” out of a window in her dorm. In April, students tried putting up a Free Speech wall at Loyola University Chicago, but were told it had to be censored due to offensive material or material that went against the university’s principles. This month, UC Berkeley will celebrate its 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, but some critics, such as the organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), say that UC Berkeley, like many other universities across the United States, only protect freedom of speech for certain ideologies, while labeling other ideologies as offensive.
Many universities, including UC Davis, have for the past several years focused on trying to be more inclusive, to foster a more diverse student body and to engineer a more accepting tomorrow for various groups of people that have previously excluded or ignored groups of people in higher education. Early on, it was noted that certain attitudes and language use were shown to be hostile toward this more inclusive environment, so efforts were made to make it more welcoming. Yet ironically, being diverse means having many people of various groups come together, and sometimes these groups, such as those divided along ideological, religious or political lines, have trouble getting along or are inherently antagonistic.
On Aug. 30, UC Davis adopted a new campus climate policy on freedom of expression in Chapter 400 of the UC Davis Policy and Procedure Manual. It recognized the right for students to express opinionated dissent and the importance of freedom of expression on campus. UC Davis also has many policies promoting campus safety in terms of inclusivity on campus. Will these two policies clash? Well, as the examples I provided above suggest, they eventually will. Perhaps it is a sadly unavoidable consequence when trying to balance freedom of speech and freedom of social safety. Something that complicates this more is that there is a lot of room for subjectivity; a crude joke that humors a specific person of a specific minority group may offend another person of that same group or even a majority group member. There will be many people who will try to speak for everyone in their identity group by saying why a certain thing offends them, but they will neglect the ones who are not offended. And there will be people in these groups who are not offended initially until it is explained to them why they should be offended. There are people who view offense on a spectrum, and those who view it in black and white.
I am slightly older than most people on campus. I was in middle and high school in the early 2000s, during the first four years George W. Bush administration, and I paid attention to politics and current events at that age. A common concern during the early Bush years and even later into his administration was censorship, especially in relation to the Patriot Act. Many progressives, like me, were very concerned about what a conservative dominance may mean for freedom of speech. We were concerned about a conservative reign of terror that would persecute certain people in the name of counter-terrorism and label certain groups as “anti-American” in the same vein as the Red Scare.
Now I am looking at the newer folks in progressive activism, and what I see is beginning to concern me. Have we lost our commitment to frowning upon censorship? Where the line is drawn between the two competing needs is one that is extremely subjective and contestable, making the suggestion by one person alone not very valuable.
KATHERINE LIU can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.