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MUZZ 102:

Introduction to Irony

Censorship by Students

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. Erika Christakis was a well-respected instructor at Yale. Her husband Nicholas served as “master” of one of the school’s undergraduate residential colleges, responsible for shaping the college’s academic, intellectual, and social life. After reading the Intercultural Affairs Committee email and discussing the issue with some of her students, Erika Christakis composed an email of her own and shared it with the college at large. “This year,” she wrote, “we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween. I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.” Drawing on her own expertise in early childhood education and noting the difficult line-drawing problems associated with applying one’s personal standards and motives to another’s choice of costume, Christakis concluded that students would benefit both intellectually and socially from being allowed to work any costuming disputes out among themselves: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” The student response to Christakis’ email was swift and severe. Student’s called the email “disrespectful” and “dangerous.” Angry students surrounded Nicholas Christakis, cursing at him and calling him “disgusting,” while several students told reporters that they could no longer bear to live in the college. A formal letter was quickly drafted calling for the Christakis’ removal. Yale’s president, along with dozens of professors at the school, expressed support for the Christakis’ expressive rights, but their support failed to quiet campus critics. In December 2015, Erika Christakis announced that she would no longer be teaching at the university.

 

Despite frequently heard claims to the contrary, there is no First Amendment exemption for so-called “hate speech.” Rather, the Constitution protects all expression that does not fall into a few well-defined categories, such as obscenity, libel, and true threats. Still, attempts to ban racist, sexist, and other offensive speech are common, especially on college campuses. Student protesters at Duke sought to enact such a ban last year through a list of demands that threatened not only the expressive freedom of the students, but the academic freedom of the faculty as well. In response to a series of racist and homophobic incidents on campus, student activists began aggressively pushing the administration to rectify what many saw as Duke’s systematic failure of minority communities. During a student-organized forum established to discuss these issues, the president and other members of the administration were presented with a document titled “Demands of Black Voices.” Among the group’s ten demands were mandatory bias/sensitivity training for all students and faculty (with extra training for all fraternity and sorority members), sanctions against students determined to have worn culturally-offensive costumes as well as those who hosted or attended an offensive party, and loss of employment for any Duke employee whose speech threatened the safety or potential academic success of students of color.

 

Speech related demands were all the rage at Amherst as well, where a student collective calling itself Amherst Uprising issued a list of 11 preliminary demands following a campus sit-in last November. Although the group insists that “the movement . . . by no means intends to stifle free speech,” their demands explicitly do just that. In addition to calling for a zero-tolerance policy towards racial insensitivity and hate speech, the collective insisted that Amherst publicly condemn the unidentified students who placed “All Lives Matter” and “Free Speech” posters on campus. Such students, the group wrote, must be subject to the school’s disciplinary process and “required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

 

Student-censors were active on a number of other campuses last year as well. A particularly bold approach was adopted by activists at the University of Mary Washington, where a Title IX complaint alleged that administrators failed to protect feminist students from sexist and derogatory comments. Students also filed a Title IX complaint against a Northwestern professor who published a journal article critical of bans on student-faculty relationships. Social media was a popular target of campus activists: Students at Clemson, Emory, Hamilton College, and the University of San Diego all sought to ban the anonymous messaging app, Yik Yak, and the Student Bar Association at the University of Missouri School of Law implemented an “Orwellian” social media policy applicable to all students. Students called for censorship of content appearing in campus newspapers at Brown and Wesleyan, while editors at UCLA’s Daily Bruin endorsed enhanced content policing of off-campus parties. Campus art displays came under fire at SUNY Buffalo, where a black art student installed “Blacks Only/Whites Only” signs around campus, and at Santa Barbara Community College, where protesters demanded the removal of an art project teepee.

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