Updated | During his 18 years as president of Lebanon Valley College during the middle of the past century, Clyde Lynch led the tiny Pennsylvania liberal arts institution through the tribulations of the Great Depression and World War II, then raised $550,000 to build a new gymnasium before he died in 1950. In gratitude, college trustees named that new building after him.
Neither Lynch nor those trustees could have predicted there would come a day when students would demand that his name be stripped from the Lynch Memorial Hall because the word lynch has “racial overtones.” But that day did come.
When playwright Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues, which premiered in 1996 and has been performed thousands of times by actors, celebrities and college students, she probably did not foresee a day when a performance of her feminist agitprop would be canceled because it was offensive to “women without vaginas.” And yet that day did come—at Mount Holyoke, one of the nation’s premier women’s colleges.
Graduates of the Class of 2016 are leaving behind campuses that have become petri dishes of extreme political correctness and heading out into a world without trigger warnings, safe spaces and free speech zones, with no rules forbidding offensive verbal conduct or microaggressions, and where the names of cruel, rapacious capitalists are embossed in brass and granite on buildings across the land. Baby seals during the Canadian hunting season may have a better chance of survival.
Their degrees look the same as ever, but in recent years the programs of study behind them have been altered to reflect the new sensitivities. Books now come with trigger warnings—a concept that originated on the internet to warn people with post-traumatic stress disorder (veterans, child abuse survivors) of content that might “trigger” a past trauma. Columbia’s English majors were opting out of reading Ovid (trigger: sexual assault), and some of their counterparts at Rutgers declined an assignment to study Virginia Woolf (trigger: suicidal ideation). Political science graduates from Modesto Junior College might have shied away from touching a copy of the U.S. Constitution in public, since a security guard stopped one of them from handing it out because he was not inside a 25-square-foot piece of concrete 30 yards away from the nearest walkway designated as the “free speech zone”—a space that needed to be booked 30 days in advance. Graduates of California public universities found it hard to discuss affirmative action policies, as administrators recently added such talk to a list of “microaggressions”—subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at a minority or other nondominant group that unintentionally reinforce a stereotype.
More than half of America’s colleges and universities now have restrictive speech codes. And, according to a censorship watchdog group, 217 American colleges and universities—including some of the most prestigious—have speech codes that “unambiguously impinge upon free speech.”
Judges have interpreted the First Amendment broadly, giving Americans some of the most expansive rights of speech in the world. But over the past two decades, and especially the past few years, American college administrators and many students have sought to confine speech to special zones and agitated for restrictions on language in classrooms as well. To protect undergrads from the discomfort of having to hear disagreeable ideas and opinions, administrators and students—and the U.S. Department of Education—have been reframing speech as “verbal conduct” that potentially violates the civil rights of minorities and women.
American college campuses are starting to resemble George Orwell’s Oceania with its Thought Police, or East Germany under the Stasi. College newspapers have been muzzled and trashed, and students are disciplined or suspended for “hate speech,” while exponentially more are being shamed and silenced on social media by their peers. Professors quake at the possibility of accidentally offending any student and are rethinking syllabi and restricting class discussions to only the most anodyne topics. A Brandeis professor endured a secret administrative investigation for racial harassment after using the word wetback in class while explaining its use as a pejorative.
As college campuses have become bastions of rigorously enforced political correctness, the limits on speech have come crashing down in the real world, with the presumptive Republican nominee for president dishing out macroaggressions on a daily basis. Donald Trump’s comments about the alleged criminality of Hispanics and Muslims, and about how fat or ugly his female enemies are, need no restating here, but many of his words would almost certainly be prohibited speech on most college campuses.
Business leaders, authors, politicians and even comedians are now routinely barred from American campuses. Springtime—the commencement-speech time of year—is now dubbed “disinvitation season.” Students and faculty debate the moral fitness of announced commencement speakers on social media and engage in bitter fights over whether even mildly controversial speakers deserve to be behind a podium. Some disinvite themselves. Christine LaGarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund and one of the most powerful women on the planet, canceled a speech at Smith, one of America’s pre-eminent women’s colleges, after a Facebook protest against her by some students and faculty for her connection to “global capitalists.” Those who turn up can find themselves facing a heckler’s veto, as mild-mannered University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau discovered in 2014 when he had the temerity to show up at tiny Haverford College without first apologizing for how his campus cops had treated Occupy Wall Streeters.
As students are labeling more and more words as hate speech, demanding more trigger warnings and shouting down both commencement speakers and comedians, the censorship flashpoints can be sorted into three topics: sex, race and Donald Trump.
Trump: Chalk and Awe
The people backing Trump’s run for the White House frequently gush that he “speaks for me” or “says what I can’t.” At a rally in April in Bethpage on New York’s Long Island, his supporters parked a giant mobile highway sign near the venue that advertised, in blinking lights, “Free speech zone,” and Trump has made supposedly unfettered speech a major part of his campaign’s shtick. “I wrote something today that I think is very, very salient, very important and probably not politically correct, but I don’t care,” he said at a rally in South Carolina after announcing he would temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
His opponents call such talk racist dog-whistling, and at most American campuses, racist speech of any kind is not just repugnant but forbidden. And sometimes even Trump is forbidden. At DePaul University in Chicago, Students for Trump snuck out to the student center around midnight on April 4 and chalked the sidewalk, scrawling their candidate’s name and phrases like “Blue lives matter” and “Don’t feel the Bern.” They then posted photos of their handiwork on Facebook. By morning light, other students had complained to the administration, and the university had dispatched custodians to wash away the offending chalk.
Nicole Been, a national political/recruitment director with Students for Trump at DePaul, says their slogans were selectively washed off; for example, janitors erased “Don’t” and left “feel the Bern.” After students began a social media campaign to file a hate crimes complaint against the Trump supporters, Been and other Students for Trump went to the administration, demanding their right to free speech. “We said we are sick of being called ‘racist’ and ‘bigot,’ and this is on you,” Been recalls. “And they said, ‘Well, [your slogans] can be triggering.’”
After ordering his janitors to hose away the pro-Trump chalkings, DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider sent an all-school email with an explanation: “The phrase ‘All Lives Matter,’ for example, sounds obvious, even banal. In fact, we are all aware it is frequently used to reject out-of-hand the core message of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement…. It’s simply insensitive to repeat something that we know in advance will bring pain and frustration to others. Our policies are not devised to prevent its use. Nor can we compel students to avoid its use. Can DePaul ask our students for kindness and sensitivity? Yes.”
DePaul isn’t the only school where students have deemed the word Trump a trigger, or even hate speech. At Atlanta’s Emory University, students protested outside the administrative offices after supporters chalked “Trump” on sidewalks. “You are not listening! Come speak to us! We are in pain!” they shouted. The Emory newspaper quoted one protester: “I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe [here].… I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school.”
Emory officials did not erase the chalk, though. Rather, university President James Wagner was videotaped chalking the words “Emory stands for free expression!”
DePaul’s wonkier explanation for erasing the Trump slogans is that the university forbids political signs anywhere on campus except in dorm rooms and only if faced away from windows. The school’s legal rationale is that, since it is an apolitical 501(c)(3) category institution, political signs could put its Internal Revenue Service designation at risk. Other schools are also invoking the IRS to curtail political activity, including Georgetown, which cited its tax status in banning Bernie Sanders supporters from politicking on campus last year.
Robert Shibley, a lawyer with a free speech watchdog group, says the IRS invocation is a fig leaf for administrators who want to ban political speech. “Almost all private universities are 501(c)(3)s,” he says. “But the tax law doesn’t apply to students. And students get this message. They have been taught this, that if something unpleasant is coming, they have a right to avoid it altogether.”
Race: ‘I’d Rather Sell Crack!’
Until it was squashed by administrative decree, Williams College sophomore Zachary Wood headed up an on-campus lecture series called “Uncomfortable Learning.” Wood, an African-American who grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., is a self-described liberal, devoted to learning and books. He liked inviting controversial speakers, usually from the political right, to challenge young progressives cloistered in a collegiate utopia at one of the nation’s great small liberal arts institutions.
Last year, though, Wood encountered the limits of free speech at Williams. First, he invited Suzanne Venker, an anti-feminist author and lecturer. After a campus and social media outcry, Wood’s fellow “Uncomfortable Learning” leaders disinvited her and then, to avoid further shaming on social media, resigned from the organization.
Wood then formed a club of one and invited an even more confrontational speaker, British-American writer John Derbyshire, whose contributions to the racial discourse include a snide white dad’s version of “the talk” black men give their sons about police. After suggesting that blacks are more “antisocial” than whites, he wrote that a small percentage “is ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us,” while “around half will go along [with violence] passively if the five percent take leadership in some event.”
An hour after Wood advertised Derbyshire’s speech with a Facebook post, he was swarmed. On Facebook, someone wrote that Wood deserved the “oil and whip”—a reference to a punishment for slaves. Others accused him of providing a space on campus for “hate speech” and began debating how to file a complaint against him. When Wood replied to one critic, “So you would never bring a speaker on the far right, like Venker and Derbyshire? I value the work I do with UL,” someone retorted, “I’d rather sell crack first.”
A few days passed, the outrage kept building, and the university president disinvited Derbyshire.
Wood believes students need to hear provocateurs like Derbyshire in order to formulate their own thoughts and challenges. “What is hate speech to begin with?” he asks. “It’s what people don’t like to hear. Trump has the support of a considerable portion of the American electorate. With someone like him running for president, speaking on national television every day, saying controversial things about the most important issues of our time, it is imperative that we confront offensive views and afford college students the opportunity to learn how to engage constructively with people they vehemently disagree with. Shielding students from microaggressions does not improve their ability to argue effectively; it coddles them. At a time like this, uncomfortable learning is vital.”
Racial grievances lie behind a host of other campus speech battles. At Amherst, students called for a speech code that would have sanctioned students for making an “All lives matter” poster. Activists at Wesleyan trashed their student newspaper, then pushed to get it defunded after it ran an op-ed critical of Black Lives Matter. Columbia professor John McWhorter has called anti-racism “America’s new religion,” saying, “When someone is called a racist in America in 2016, it is practically equivalent to calling them a pedophile.”
There is also a growing trend of applying the norms of today to the racists of yesterday. Students at Amherst petitioned to have the school renamed because its namesake, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, suggested sending smallpox-infected blankets to Indians during the 18th century. Students demanded that Yale’s Calhoun College be renamed because John Calhoun, an antebellum U.S. senator from South Carolina, supported slavery. Princeton students want to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because Wilson predicted blacks would never attend Princeton and called segregation “a benefit not a humiliation.” Dozens of colleges and universities—including Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, William & Mary—are renaming buildings on campus, and the trend has become so prevalent that The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed, “Donor Beware,” advising philanthropists to take into consideration how history will judge their gifts, or how they made their fortunes, before donating to universities.
Sex: Exquisitely Sensitive Creatures
Feminists deserve some of the blame for normalizing the aggrieved fragility of students. Rape and sexual harassment are real problems on campus, as they are in the rest of the world. But just as there is a “rape culture,” there is also a campus rape victim culture that tends to treat all young women as “survivors.” Accusers who say they have endured any sort of unpleasant incident with a male—from having to turn down a date request to deciding, the morning after getting naked and in bed with a man, that they wished they had not—are deemed as deeply damaged as child pedophile victims, battered women and rape survivors.
Colleges and universities, and their fraternities and athletic departments, need to do a better job of monitoring and weeding out the men who are rapists or potential rapists. Instead of focusing on that, colleges and universities—encouraged by feminists and women’s studies departments, and in many cases ordered to do so by various Department of Education edicts—have inserted themselves as referees into the messiest and most emotionally complicated and intimate entanglements human beings are capable of creating. Their rulebook is called Title IX, the federal law requiring that colleges ensure women get an equal education. It was originally applied to sports teams and funding but has been expanded to cover how universities handle claims of sexual assault and harassment. Acting in loco parentis and under orders from the federal government, administrators form de facto star chambers that act as judge, jury and executioner, without adhering to legal rules of evidence or due process.
The rape victim services on many campuses, intended to protect young victims from further emotional and psychological damage, have evolved into cults of coddling in which no one dares question a “survivor’s” account. Good intentions have gone so awry that young men are routinely labeled rapists without due process.
The presumption of female victimhood inherent in many campus sexual harassment codes prompted Northwestern University feminist film and culture professor Laura Kipnis to pen an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education headlined “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” She ridiculed campus sexual harassment guidelines as “feminism hijacked by melodrama” and identified an “obsession with helpless victims and powerful predators” behind the new policy. “Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to impede their education.”
Kipnis was skeptical about whether a fellow professor accused of assault by a student could have been guilty, given that the girl admitted she initiated their date and both agreed that although they had slept together, they were fully clothed, and there had been no sex. Because Kipnis dared question the strength of the evidence in that case, a group of students filed a federal Title IX complaint against her, charging that her article had a “chilling effect” on students who might want to report sexual assault. Northwestern started an investigation. Kipnis was cleared, but the episode made her a pariah on campus. Student activists “have certain hatred of me,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education.
When Northwestern investigated Kipnis for writing satirically about sexual harassment policies, it was abiding by Department of Education guidelines instructing administrators to expand their definition of sexual harassment to include “verbal conduct.” The DOE last month reiterated that colleges are responsible for investigating all speech of a sexual nature that someone subjectively finds unwelcome, even if that speech is protected by the First Amendment or an institution’s promises of free speech.
The notion of speech as verbal conduct goes back to the work of feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon. In the 1980s, MacKinnon—who also invented the legal construct of sexual harassment—theorized that pornography is a civil rights violation. Colleges now routinely refer to forbidden speech as “verbal conduct.” It is a formulation that takes MacKinnon’s work and runs with it so far that it dispenses entirely with the old nursery rhyme about sticks and stones, words and broken bones.
You Can’t Say That…or That
Today’s free speech flashpoints on campus—Trump, race and sex—are part of a bigger debate about the purpose of the university. Is it an island for experiments in how to make society kinder and more just? Or is it a boot camp for the brain, where young minds are challenged by other viewpoints and learn how to defend their own?
Ironically, young people clamoring for trigger warnings and safe spaces are one generation removed from—and potentially the children of—men and women who came of age in 1960s, when Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement set a new standard for unfettered speech. Today’s college students are as eager as button-up, crew-cut, Eisenhower-era Americans to gag speech, although for entirely different reasons. The campus censorship movement today is a deeply conservative impulse embedded within a permissive, decadent culture that is far from “safe.” The same students protesting microaggressions toward women and minorities are not organizing boycotts to halt macroaggressions like rappers calling women bitches and whores. Nor do campus “verbal conduct” rules about sexual harassment apply to the ubiquitous internet porn that degrades young women and girls.
In March, Yale hosted an “Intelligence Squared U.S.” debate on the proposition “Free speech is threatened on campus” featuring four prominent professors and writers who argued for an hour and 45 minutes. Afterward, the audience voted on the proposition, and 66 percent agreed with it. The debate got very little coverage, possibly because it was held on Super Tuesday, a night in which Mr. Macroaggression himself swept the GOP contests. But the event and venue were significant because Yale students had nearly rioted a few months before over a dorm master’s wife’s email that gently challenged the university’s warning that microaggressions might lurk in some Halloween costumes. The students accused Yale of failing to create a “safe space,” and some demanded that the dorm master and his wife resign or be fired. In December, she resigned.
The Yale debate devolved into an argument about whether demands for free speech are actually attacks on “the left” in disguise. “We must consider the possibility that what is really happening is that the language of free speech has been co-opted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests and used to silence the marginalized,” Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley said. “All too often, when people cry for justice and represent that it threatens the free speech, what is really meant is just ‘be quiet.’”
His partner in arguing against the motion, Shaun Harper, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, dismissed complaints about widespread campus censorship, saying that “only a handful” of colleges have restrictive speech policies and that racism on American campuses is a more pervasive and urgent problem than censorship. As proof, he said 8,000 college presidents and other senior campus leaders have come to his center for guidance on how to respond to racism on their campuses. “When a person of color says that ‘what you just said sounded or felt to me racist, we’re not attempting to shut down the conversation.… We are inviting you to engage with us.”
Author and lawyer Wendy Kaminer argued for the motion and reeled off those statistics that show half of American colleges and universities have restrictive speech codes. Kaminer has written books and essays criticizing the self-help and recovery movements, as well as censorship, and she argued that the number of “vague” restrictions on speech, jokes and gestures on campuses are “too many to memorize.”
Kaminer had her own brush with the speech police. Not long before the Yale debate, she participated in a panel organized by Smith alumnae in New York City. The university president was moderating, and the conversation turned to the challenges of teaching without expurgation Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with the author’s liberal use of the N-word intact. “I said, Let’s talk about these words we can only talk about using initials,” Kaminer recalls. “I said, When I say ‘the N-word,’ you all hear nigger in your heads.”
Nobody objected at the time, but a young alumna in the audience recorded the panel discussion on her phone and later posted it on the internet. The Smith College community went wild on social media: Students accused Kaminer of engaging in hate speech, and she endured several weeks of public name-calling. A Huffington Post blogger accused Kaminer of committing “an explicit act of racial violence.” The Smith College newspaper not only redacted nigger but also the word crazy, which another panel member had used as a joke (“We’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we?”), replacing it with the phrase “ableist slur” in brackets.
Had she been on the Smith faculty, Kaminer believes, her job would have been at risk. “It’s very hard to ask people who are dependent on a paycheck and living in small communities to challenge censorship,” she tells Newsweek. “It was really remarkable to me that [my attackers] could not distinguish between racist speech and talking about racist speech. There was no difference.”
Legal scholar and cultural critic Stanley Fish, author of There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech...and It’s a Good Thing Too, says administrators should ignore student censorship demands because they go against the purpose of the university. “Scholarly inquiry cannot be impeded by demonizing certain forms of speech in advance or anointing as holy certain types of speech in advance,” he tells Newsweek.
“What we are seeing is not just phobias about language,” Kaminer says. “We have gone way beyond political correctness and are seeing a real decline in critical thinking. If you don't know the difference between quoting a word and hurling an epithet, then you don’t know how to think.”
For decades, conservatives have complained about the wave of “political correctness,” hypersensitivity and hostility toward contrary ideas at colleges and universities run by “the radical left.” But now a small but increasing number of progressive professors, writers and students have begun to speak out. A group of humanities professors wrote on Inside Higher Ed that trigger warnings had a “chilling effect” on their teaching. A small number of fired or investigated professors are fighting back.
They have off-campus support from a campus free speech legal aid group, founded 15 years ago, called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In its first 10 years, the organization took on college administrators edging toward censorship. FIRE maintains a database of 400 colleges and universities and color-codes them red, yellow or green based on the relative degree of censorship embedded in their speech guidelines. The top 10 worst offenders get placed in the “Red Alert” category, which FIRE annually publishes as an ad in U.S. News & World Report’s college issue. This year’s “worst of the worst” offenders include Mount Saint Mary’s University for firing a tenured professor and the school newspaper’s adviser after it covered a scandal over the president’s plan to oust underperforming freshman, and Louisiana State University for firing a well-regarded tenured professor who had won millions in grants for the university, for occasionally using profanity in class.
The group’s lawyers offer advice to students and professors and are increasingly at odds with the DOE since it expanded its definition of sexual harassment to include “verbal conduct.” But it’s not at all clear students want FIRE’s help. Its biggest challenge in the past few years has been student antipathy toward speech. “We always said, Students can handle this, they are not wilting flowers,” Nico Perrino, communications director at FIRE. “Well, now we have students saying they are vulnerable.”
The loudest of those “wilting flowers”—often but not always politically on the left—fling around labels like “racist” and “misogynist” when they are offended. And their foes—often but not always from the right—sneer that their adversaries are “social justice warriors,” or “SJWs” in social media parlance.
In late April, Milo Yiannopoulos, a British “journalist and entrepreneur” and self-described male-rights agitator, grabbed a mic and slowly drawled, “Feminism. Is. Cancer.” The packed auditorium at University of Massachusetts Amherst rang with boos and curses as he snickered and pranced back to his seat on the stage. A middle-aged woman replaced him at the podium, and rather than trying to quell the crowd, she stomped on its collective throat. “The correct word for third-wave campus feminism is madness,” declared anti-feminist author and speaker Christina Hoff Sommers before shrieks and boos drowned her out.
Both speakers had been invited by the U-Mass Amherst Republicans for a panel discussion titled “The Triggering.” The speakers goaded the crowd with anti-feminist slogans and ideas; the audience erupted in prolonged shouting; insults were lobbed to and from the stage. “Stop acting like a child!” Sommers yelled at one young woman whose heckling was making it impossible for her to finish a sentence. Sommers told the audience she had seen the same type of behavior at Oberlin, where organizers had provided a “safe space to which people could flee if my words upset them.” She proudly claimed that “30 women and a therapy dog fled to that safe space.”
That “Triggering” was one part politics and three parts an academic Jerry Springer Show and is now packaged for your amusement on YouTube. Conservative speakers like Sommers and professional provocateurs like Yiannopoulos get invited to campuses explicitly to make un-PC comments in the auditoriums of America’s universities. But after encountering angry students offended by their humor, even top-drawer comedians like Bill Maher and Chris Rock have announced they won’t accept any more invitations to perform on campuses.
This is an era in which almost every joke apparently has the potential to put white privilege on display. A Dartmouth fraternity tradition of holding a “Phiesta” on Cinco de Mayo was canceled recently because the made-up word was deemed a “cultural appropriation.” The utter humorlessness of the outraged is the topic of an upcoming documentary called Can We Take a Joke? The film, narrated by comedian Christina Pazsitzky, includes interviews with comics Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, Adam Carolla, Jim Norton and Heather McDonald, and it will be released this August, on the 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death. Bruce was an iconic comedian who made profane work of politics, religion and sex in his standup act. A court convicted him of obscenity for his comedy, and he died of a drug overdose.
It’s been nearly 400 years since English writer John Milton wrote “Areopagitica,” an argument against censorship that laid the groundwork for American and British guarantees of free speech. His theme was that ideas are strengthened, not weakened, by confrontation and challenge. As he put it then, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.”
It remains to be seen whether graduates in the Class of 2016, released into an angry, boorish Trumpian America, full of insults to women and proverbial—so far—walls for minorities, will sally out and meet the adversary or find themselves at a loss for words.
Correction: This article originally referred to Columbia professor John McWhorter as Jason McWhorter.