Campus activists stir defenders of free speech

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Voices are emerging to counter the din raised on college campuses by self-styled social-justice advocates as students who don’t accept the need for “safe spaces” defend free speech against activists who would muzzle peers to weed out “microaggressions.”

At Princeton University, where activists have staged campus demonstrations and sit-ins to force administrators to remove former President Woodrow Wilson’s name from schools, buildings and grounds, a group calling itself the Princeton Open Campus Coalition recently coalesced to counter the activists, according to a report in National Review, a conservative magazine.

“We stand for academic freedom and open dialogue,” the group stated in a letter penned to Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. Eisgruber recently agreed to study the issue of Wilson’s legacy, assuaging demands made by members of activists calling themselves the Black Justice League.

The spirit of bucking campus activists has emerged at another Ivy League institution, Brown University.

The only catch for students looking to speak freely at the school is that they have had to go “underground” to avoid a backlash. National Review published a close look at the situation on the Providence, Rhode Island, campus, where one student created an invite-only, private Facebook page to serve as a place where ideas could be freely discussed and opinions freely debated.

The irony, according to some, is rich.

Sophomore Chris Robotham, a student from Scituate, a Boston suburb, created the Facebook page a little more than a year ago. Little did Robotham know that soon, daily protests and demonstrations would engulf his campus, largely in response to a pair of racially charged columns published in the Brown Daily Herald, a student newspaper.

The columnist, who wrote under a pseudonym, offered in one piece, “Columbian Exchange Day,” that American Indians benefited somewhat under colonialism. The column has since been removed from the paper’s website, replaced with an apology. Another column, exploring whether biology plays a role in racial inequality, stoked additional turmoil.

Ethnic studies faculty members issued a statement condemning the columns and denounced, among other things, the opinion that while the views expressed by columnists may be hurtful, they still represent the exercise of free speech rights.

“When these students read a racist rant in the Brown Daily Herald, they had the courage to say ‘enough,’” read the statement, signed by nearly 50 professors. “Sadly, some inside and outside of Brown were then shocked that they dared to speak at all, and rode swiftly to the defense of supposedly embattled free speech and imperiled academic freedom.”

“Calling out racism, we submit, is not an impingement on ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘academic freedom,’ it is an act of self-defense. And frankly, it is a relatively tiny one, lost in the sea of small slights, casual dismissals, and serious incidents that our students confront each day,” the professors said.

A Providence radio station managed to track down the columnist, Emma Maier, a junior. Maier disagreed with the newspaper’s editors’ decision to remove one of her columns and apologize for one and correct the other, according to the station’s website.

“I absolutely do not agree with the decision to remove and/or apologize for the articles, for they were not racist or eugenicist in any way,” she said. “The only violation they executed was to be a dissenting opinion away from Brown’s radical and politically left-wing student groups.

“These groups are admirably steadfast and good of heart, but sometimes the evil against which they stand is a vacuous evil, if that.”

The backlash against Maier saw campus minority groups respond with letters to the newspaper, charging students of color are rarely included in coverage. Student and op-ed page contributor Sarah Jackson, a senior, wrote that the letters express “a sense of isolation many students of color feel from the major newspaper on campus.”

Jackson added that “freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee a platform for every view.”

Initial feelings of hurt for many minority students after the publication of the two op-eds have been compounded by the framing of the fallout as an issue of free speech,” Jackson noted.

Robotham, stepping out of his Facebook free speech sanctuary, was the first reader to comment.

“The Brown Daily Herald, like many prominent institutions at Brown have done before it, acted rashly in trying to quell criticism from those who were calling it racist, and in so doing, actually created a serious threat to freedom of political expression on Brown’s campus,” the sophomore wrote, referring to Maier’s columns. “The threats to her free speech did not exist until the pieces were pulled and the BDH released that apology,” he wrote. The moves, he added, “set the precedent that something was unworthy of being said merely by its capacity to offend.”

Robotham pointed out that the Brown Daily Herald declined to delete a different op-ed that others saw offensive, an anti-military piece titled “ROTC: Return of the Criminals,” which condemned what the columnist described as “glorified state-sponsored killing.”

Robotham didn’t respond to an email requesting comment on his Facebook creation.

“The reason that people were up in arms about “free speech” was that the BDH decided that it should pull certain pieces or prevent future ones from being published simply because it offended certain people, but refuses to do the same when it offends others,” Robotham said in the note about Jackson’s op-ed page article. “To do that is a very precedent-setting move by the most powerful institution of its kind on campus that does legitimately threaten the rights of certain people to express themselves.

“Your narrative that the controversy over free speech emerged merely as a result of the criticism of the content of her op-eds is entirely incorrect and creates the false impression that ‘free speech’ advocates were merely disguised defenders of her and her views looking to lessen others’ criticisms. That was never the case.”

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.