They don't want to hear our free speech

Campus protesters are being criticized for squelching free speech, but the right wingers leading the attack are really concerned about protecting the right to be a racist.

Boston University students demand action against racist harassment and discriminationBoston University students demand action against racist harassment and discrimination

THE NEW movement against anti-Black racism took another step forward in November when protests burst out on college campuses across the country.

Many of these actions were inspired by the powerful University of Missouri (Mizzou) demonstrations that gained national attention when the football team threated to go on strike unless the university president resigned. But all focused on the impact of institutional racism specific to each campus.

At dozens of rallies, sit-ins and occupations, students talked about being profiled and harassed by campus police, the stress of feeling more like a token of diversity than a fully accepted student, and the lack of support from universities they are putting themselves into decades-long debt just to attend.

This eruption of struggle on campuses is clearly an expression of anger and pain that has simmered away for years beneath the well-maintained surfaces of college life. Yet to many hostile observers, the protests somehow represent the opposite: a suppression of the right to free expression.

Within days of the resignations of the president and chancellor at Missouri, much of the media had shifted their attention from what the protesters were saying about racism, to the supposed problems with how they were saying it.

Many critiques shared the condescending approach of Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition, who belittled the desire to eliminate racism at universities as "students' expectation that they are entitled to a campus that is a 'safe place'--by which is meant an academic environment uncontaminated with ideas that they find 'offensive.'"

To find evidence that these protests are a threat to free speech, critics had to brush aside the overall spirit of the movement and focus on a handful of incidents--most of which hardly qualify as threats to the First Amendment.

The most talked-about "free speech" controversy took place at Mizzou when protesters tried to prevent a journalist from entering their tent city. How in the world does choosing not to express yourself to certain media become an infringement on the right to free expression?

Whether one agrees with every tactic and demand put forward in these many and varied protests--which is highly unlikely in any genuine and vibrant movement--the idea that the actions of students are decreasing the expression of political ideas on campuses is obviously false. On the contrary, the demonstrations are clearly increasing political debate and discussion.

But this media smear fits a familiar pattern: When Black people raise their voices against oppression, a reason is quickly found to prove how they are being oppressors. Just as Republicans falsely insisted for years that African Americans going to vote were committing voter fraud, now Black students speaking out against racism are accused of silencing others.

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MANY POLITICIANS and pundits have portrayed the activists as spoiled teenagers taking advantage of an overly permissive liberal university culture to demand the world on a platter, and to condemn anyone who stands in their way.

In fact, these "coddled" students go to school under the dark clouds of lifelong debt. Among the graduating class of 2015, over 70 percent took out loans at an average amount of $35,000--a record amount, and a full $15,000 more than just 10 years ago. For this generation of students, college isn't a carefree utopia, but a pressure cooker, in which the need to do well and make the right choices to justify all that debt creates enormous stress.

The situation is no better for their teachers. An incredible 70 percent of college professors are now "contingent faculty" who lack job security. For these educators, college is certainly not a "safe space" to introduce provocative ideas or take part in campus protests.

Meanwhile, specialty studies programs around race, ethnicity and gender, won through student protests in the 1960s and '70s, are being cut across the country by university administrators who view them as less essential--and who would rather spend the rest of the budget on their own skyrocketing salaries.

All in all, as Nancy Welch argues in the International Socialist Review, universities have become expert at maintaining their image as insulated ivory towers when, in fact, they are as much a reflection of cutthroat capitalism as Walmart is.

This corporatization is the real threat to free speech at universities. Just like the backlash against campus "political correctness" in the 1990s, today's rhetoric about "left-wing authoritarianism" on campus is a distraction from--and a tool of--the actual shift that is taking place: sharply to the right.

The current complaints started in the spring of 2014 when a number of protests were called against proposed commencement speakers--most notably at Rutgers, where former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice canceled her appearance in the face of widespread opposition.

Critics of the protests, including Rutgers President Robert Barchi, portrayed them as attacks on free speech and academic freedom--as if students and faculty who objected to this decision, made without their input in any way, had no right to object to their commencement being marred by one of the Bush administration's leading war criminals.

This, of course, is the hypocrisy at the root of most of the complaints about free speech being squelched by campus protests. It's usually the critics who more resemble the caricatures they paint of activists: entitled whiners afraid of losing their own "safe spaces" where they can offend without being confronted. They're the ones who want to avoid discussion--of the effects of structural oppressions and historical inequalities--by focusing on a few perceived "micro-aggressions" of overzealous protesters.

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IN MANY ways, this latest backlash resembles the fabrications concocted by conservatives against the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the supposed "war on cops" and the fabricated "Ferguson effect," the "war on free speech" follows a formula of using a few isolated and unrepresentative incidents to induce a panic.

In this case, however, the charge is coming not just from the usual suspects at Fox News, but liberal publications like Slate, the Atlantic and the New York Times.

Perhaps this is because while previous stages of the Black Lives Matter movement primarily challenged the conservative idea that the U.S. is now a "colorblind society," the campus protests are taking aim at the toothless liberalism that characterizes the political culture of most universities. In the words of protesters at the University of North Carolina (UNC):

You include Black and Brown bodies in the institution, and mark them with the words "diversity," "inclusion," and "multiculturalism." You throw us on brochures and tout us in statistics. You do this to hide the way UNC would not function were it not for the mass displacement, exploitation, slow death and genocide of Black and Brown people.

There have been debatable tactics and demands at some protests--inevitable in any bottom-up movement bringing together thousands of activists with a range of politics and experience.

For example, one demand from a sit-in at Amherst College called for possible administrative discipline against other students who had put up posters proclaiming "free speech" to be the main victim of the demonstrations at Mizzou. That right-wing view needs to be challenged, but rather than giving more power to an administration which activists correctly see as being part of the problem, they would be better served finding ways to take on such weak arguments in public debates.

The point, though, is that these mistakes don't come from a secret authoritarian agenda. They stem from the difficulties of learning how to expose racism in an atmosphere where everything on the surface is multicultural and hunky dory.

The multitude of well-meaning and sometimes effective anti-racist trainings and programs at colleges hasn't reversed or halted the declining conditions for people of color, on or off campus. But they can make it more challenging for students of color to identify the sources of the racism that still so clearly impacts them.

In this regard, the statement from the UNC activists points a way forward by targeting the structural ways in which racism is perpetuated on campus, including increasing funding for ethnic studies programs, dropping the use of standardized tests for admissions, and opening up the campus to non-students.

The speed with which students are sharpening their ideas and demands is inspiring, and it points to the one thing that some of their conservative critics understand very well. College campuses are indeed one of the few places in society where left-wing ideas still have a foothold and where racism is regularly challenged.

If the developing movement against campus racism continues to grow, it can be a powerful force both on and off campus in promoting a flowering of radical ideas that have long been suppressed.