We defended left-wing speech at Syracuse

July 3, 2017

Brandon Daniels reports on how students and faculty built a campaign to defend Syracuse University professor Dana Cloud from a right-wing smear campaign.

A CAMPAIGN in defense of Syracuse University professor Dana Cloud succeeded in pressuring the administration to come out in support of her right to free speech and political activism.

This is an important victory at a moment when white supremacists and others on the hard right are targeting scholars and authors who speak out against racism, Islamophobia and the Trump regime.

In recent months, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor was forced to cancel public lectures after receiving death threats for a speech that criticized Trump as a racist and sexist; Trinity College put sociology professor John Eric Williams on leave for his anti-racist statements; George Ciciarello-Maher was sanctioned by Drexel for ironic social media posts about white supremacy; and Essex County College fired Lisa Durden after she engaged in a heated debate with Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

Right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter and publications like Campus Reform have mobilized conservatives to attack these intellectuals with hate mail, social media attacks and threats of physical harm as part of a concerted campaign to silence and demoralize critical, activist professors.

THESE OUTLETS took statements made by the professors out of context as a pretext for attacking them. In the case of Dana Cloud, a professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse, the onslaught of hate mail and physical threats started after she sent out a tweet calling for reinforcements for a counterdemonstration against a June 10 Islamophobic rally.

Days after the protest and the tweet, right-wingers used their social media followers to direct people to attack Cloud. She has since been inundated with abuse, including threats that make specific reference to her home, family and pet.

But Cloud and her supporters responded quickly and effectively--mobilizing as soon as the hate mail started to arrive. After taking steps to secure her safety, activists began to monitor right-wing sites and social media posts, gathering ample evidence that the attackers are the ones perpetrating violence, not the faculty.

In addition to collecting disgusting, misogynistic and anti-gay insults, the activists archived tweets and posts that openly displayed neo-Nazi symbolism. Gathering this evidence was crucial in conversations with administrators.

Organizers quickly drafted a statement in support of Cloud, who began by reaching out to supportive faculty for their signatures. Including dozens of Syracuse faculty, students, and alumni, the statement ultimately garnered almost 1,500 signatures from across the country.

Cloud and her supporters also reached out to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), whose endorsement fueled nationwide support. Articles about the statement and the events leading up to it circulated in activist and academic media, including SocialistWorker.org, the AAUP publication Academe, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

AT THE outset of the crisis, the Syracuse administration asked Cloud to attend a meeting to "talk about the importance of her language choices."

In addition to the irony of lecturing a professor of rhetoric about the nuances of political language, this message was an ominous indication of possible university discipline. It's important under such pressure not to give any ground to the idea that it is the faculty member's rhetoric that is to blame for these right-wing attacks.

Fortunately, the mobilization in defense of Cloud quickly shifted the atmosphere on campus.

As the account spread about the attacks that put the blame where it belongs--on the vicious right-wing thugs emboldened by Trump's racism and sexism--Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud acknowledged that it was the right-wingers calling to complain about Cloud who were urging violence.

As support grew, Cloud visited the chair of her department and her dean with the evidence gathered about the bigots behind the bullying. Winning their support was crucial to successfully pressuring the higher administration to act swiftly in support of a faculty member.

In a statement circulated to the entire Syracuse University community, Chancellor Syverud wrote:

Recently, a professor at Syracuse University issued a short statement via social media during a demonstration in the city. The statement is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Some have urged that, because their interpretations involve violence (interpretations the professor rejects), our University must discipline the professor.

I have received messages to this effect, some of which are hard to interpret in any way other than to encourage violence. They insist that the University--and that I--denounce, censor, or dismiss the professor for her speech.

No. We are and will remain a university. Free speech is and will remain one of our key values. I can't imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech. Our faculty must be able to say and write things--including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable--up to the very limits of the law. The statement at issue is, I believe, within those limits. I intend to act accordingly.

It's impossible to say for sure whether the Syracuse administration would have issued such a strong statement without feeling the pressure of an immediate, concerted and thorough defense campaign. But that's a fair conclusion.

The Chancellor and other administrators were receiving multiple calls to discipline or fire Professor Cloud, and the actions of other universities are evidence that the tendency of administrators is to give in to public pressure and balk at supporting their faculty.

AS RIGHT-wing attacks continue on academics like Lisa Durden and John Eric Williams, we should take lessons from the successful campaign to defend Dana Cloud.

Immediate and sustained organizing that pursues every avenue of support on campus should be our course for all faculty facing threats of violence and institutional discipline. It needs to become a reflex to craft and circulate statements of support and contact organizations that can help, along with mainstream and left-wing media.

Evidence-gathering that documents the right wing campaign and threats is also important for reversing the false narrative that left-wing professors are the source of hate and violence.

Williams' supporters have begun this process and have circulated an online petition in his support. Additional organizing on his campus to mobilize students and faculty in public action might be a necessary next step, given the backwardness of the Trinity administration's response.

It is all too easy for faculty members to feel isolated when under siege from the right. At this moment in which the far right is emboldened, their threats are terrifying and must be taken seriously. The best way to fight back is to challenge that isolation and reach out to organize support on every level as swiftly as possible.

It is important that activists look for and opt out of any public records websites where bullies can find their home address. These sites include whitepages.com and, in some states, voter registration sites.

In the longer term, faculty on every campus should take steps to organize themselves in unions or in chapters of the AAUP so that the infrastructure of an immediate defense will be already in place. All should consider becoming part of wider political activist organizations.

A successful campaign can demoralize the right and send the message that they won't get away with persecuting those who speak out on our campuses against racism, misogyny, Islamophobia and every other kind of bigotry.

As these trolls move on from one faculty member to another, our solidarity with each should be proclaimed loudly and proudly. Cloud's case at Syracuse shows that we can organize against right-wing bullies and win.

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