Amherst, Harvard, Williams cited for ‘muzzling’ speech

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BOSTON – Three prestigious Massachusetts colleges were singled-out for stifling free speech on campus over the past year, earning them “muzzles” from the Thomas Jefferson Center.

Amherst College, Harvard University and Williams College were among 50 U.S. schools that curtailed students’ First Amendment rights in 2015, drawing Jefferson Muzzle Awards from the Charlottesville, Virginia-based organization. The offenders weren’t just administrators, organizers behind the tongue-in-cheek awards said. In some cases, students themselves blocked the free expression of ideas.

“Students who once protested to have their voices heard now seek to silence those they disagree with or find threatening,” the center’s leaders said in a statement about the unprecedented number of schools receiving the muzzles. “Meanwhile, university administrators appear locked in a competition to determine which school will take the toughest stand against offensive, unpopular, and hurtful speech.”

Amherst, in the Massachusetts town of the same name, earned its spot on the list after a student “uprising” last fall in part targeting its namesake, Lord Jeffrey Amherst. The movement arose in the wake of protests at the University of Missouri, where mounting tensions between students and administrators over race-relations eventually led to the ouster of the institution’s president and a faculty member who trained in Amherst, at the University of Massachusetts.

Protestors at Amherst College rolled out an 11-point list of demands, including banishing Lord Jeff as the school’s unofficial mascot. The British lord was a general rumored to have given American Indians smallpox-infected blankets.

But other demands drew intense scrutiny, especially one that required campus critics of the movement to face disciplinary action and undergo “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

“Protestors were trying to punish counter-protests with an extensive, compulsory racial-reeducation program,” The Atlantic reported. “Perhaps the curriculum could be issued in a little red book.”

It was that demand in particular that earned Amherst its muzzle, award organizers said.

“Although the group insists that ‘the movement . . . by no means intends to stifle free speech,’ their demands explicitly do just that,” the muzzle judges wrote.

Harvard University and Williams College ended up on the list after disinviting controversial guests from campus events.

In Cambridge, Bronx Defenders Executive Director Robin Steinberg saw her invitation to speak at the school withdrawn in early 2015 after the New York Police Department’s union voiced opposition. According to the New York Post, a music video critical of police partially filmed in the Bronx Defenders’ offices and featuring organization employees sparked the backlash.

Williams similarly earned it muzzle by canceling a guest lecture by Suzanne Venker, a critic of the feminism movement, last fall. According to Inside Higher Ed, the event was scuttled after students protested her presence on campus.

“Things got a little out of hand,” Zach Wood, one of the students who organized the event, told the newspaper.

Venker took to Fox News to object to the decision. She denounced what she described as a “call-out culture,” wherein students can effectively censor perspectives they disagree with.

Amherst, Harvard and Williams were in good company, though. Other muzzles went to Yale University, George Washington University, Duke University and Brown University.

Clashes like these over guest speakers, race-relations, controversial speech, potentially offensive Halloween costumes and so-called safe spaces and trigger warnings made national headlines throughout last year. They also prompted the Jefferson Center to tweak the format for its awards to encroachments on free speech.

Usually, the organization selects between eight and 12 recipients, a mix of individuals and institutions they deem as actively limiting free expression. Not this year.

“Never in our 25 years of awarding the Jefferson Muzzles have we observed such an alarming concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw last year on college campuses across the country,” the group wrote.

The center isn’t alone in its concern. Greg Lukianoff, chief of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has bemoaned students’ efforts to stifle one another’s speech.

“It’s been frustrating, watching the sort of speech [suppression] shift over from administrators to students,” Lukianoff told U.S. News & World Report.

The magazine also quoted Bettina Aptheker, one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1960s, which argued for students’ rights to engage in political activity on campus and for academic freedom. The movement helped propel both civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests on campuses nationwide. Aptheker said she also worries about recent trends.

“As abhorrent as some speech is, and I certainly think [some] is, the administration of a university should not be in the position of policing it, because it’s a very slippery slope,” she said.

The organizers behind the Jefferson awards did pause to highlight educational institutions they saw as taking steps in the right direction. They lauded the University of Chicago in particular for adopting a liberal free speech policy, concluding last year that shielding students from ideas was not the proper role of the academic institution.

With this year’s awards, the Jefferson Center sought to encourage other colleges and universities to follow Chicago’s lead. The muzzles, it said, are “an admonishment for the acts already done and a reminder that it is not too late to change course.”