An epidemic of anti-speech activity swept across the campuses of American colleges and universities in 2015 and shows little sign of abating in 2016. Not long ago, these same institutions were at the vanguard of First Amendment issues; students demanded—then made powerful use of—expanded speech rights on campus, and administrators held academic freedom sacrosanct.
These positions reflected a shared understanding that intellectual inquiry requires an environment in which debate is uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, even if it occasionally results in unpleasant or offensive exchanges. Today, however, the focus seems to be on limiting rather than promoting the open exchange of ideas. Students who once protested to have their voices heard now seek to silence those they disagree with or find threatening. Meanwhile, university administrators appear locked in a competition to determine which school will take the toughest stand against offensive, unpopular, and hurtful speech. First Amendment principles have given way to identity politics, trigger warnings, and so-called “safe spaces,” and the Free Speech Movement has, at many colleges, become the Anti-Speech Movement.
Since 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Center has awarded Jefferson Muzzles to those individuals and institutions responsible for the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to free speech during the preceding year. Our usual practice has been to select eight to twelve recipients each year, reflecting the unfortunate reality that threats to free expression regularly occur at all levels of government. This year, however, we were compelled to take a different approach. 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. We are therefore awarding Jefferson Muzzles to the 50 colleges and universities discussed below, both as an admonishment for the acts already done and a reminder that it is not too late to change course.
Before we reveal this year’s “winners,” it is worth noting that several schools actively pushed back against the tide of anti-speech sentiment in 2015. In January, the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago issued a free speech policy statement guaranteeing “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” and recognizing that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” Several institutions, including American University, Princeton, Purdue, and Winston-Salem State have since adopted the core tenets of the Chicago statement as their own. These schools are to be commended and we certainly hope that many more will soon follow their example, but until a great majority of college students and administrators come together to speak out against the Anti-Speech Movement, our most reliable bastions of free expression will increasingly be rendered unrecognizable.
The recipients of the 2016 Jefferson Muzzle awards are presented below, divided into the following five categories: Censorship of Students, Censorship by Students, Efforts to Limit Press Access on Campus, Threats to Academic Freedom, and Censorship of Outside Speakers.
If you want to single out a tipping point in the spread of anti-speech activity on campuses last year, look no further than the University of Oklahoma. In March 2015, a video emerged showing a busload of tuxedo-wearing Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members singing a racist chant. Within 48 hours of the video going public, OU president David Boren severed all ties with the fraternity and expelled two students identified as leading the chant. Imploring other administrators to adopt the same zero tolerance policy against racist speech, Boren vowed that OU would be “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue.” Unfortunately, he was right.
Shortly before Halloween, the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale sent an email to students cautioning them against wearing costumes that could be perceived as “culturally unaware or insensitive.” When one professor had the temerity to gently and respectfully suggest that students might be capable (and perhaps even better off) navigating these waters themselves rather than relying on university oversight, she was condemned, shouted down, and ultimately chased off campus.
In one of 2015’s most unforgettable moments, Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media studies at the University of Missouri, was captured on video attempting to prevent press coverage of a public protest on campus. Click, who herself had put out calls on social media for national media coverage of the protests just two days earlier, was shown asking “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” and calling for “some muscle” to help remove a student photographer filming the incident.
Louisiana State University demonstrated its feeble commitment to academic freedom last year when the school fired a tenured professor over her occasional use of profanity and sexual humor in the classroom. Teresa Buchanan taught at LSU for nearly two decades and by all accounts her scholarship and service to the university was exceptional. She was known for her open rapport with students and for speaking her mind in the classroom. Buchanan acknowledges that she occasionally used profanity in her lectures as well as jokes, some of which were sexual in nature, but assumed that her adult students were mature enough to handle adult conversations. As she put it, “I’m not teaching Sunday school.”
Students at numerous universities attempted to exclude certain viewpoints from being heard on their campuses in 2015. Such efforts do all members of the community a disservice by stifling open debate and the ability of others to hear and challenge controversial ideas. One constant feature of this category of campus censorship is that it is embraced by students of all political ideologies. Outside speakers were challenged in equal number by the right and left, and while not all attempts were ultimately successful, each served to diminish free speech principles on their respective campuses.