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What We’re Reading: November 2019

Our November readings take you to the pressrooms of Harvard’s The Crimson and Northwestern’s The Daily for two stories about student newspapers that faced criticism for following standard reporting practices. The very different ways in which these two newspapers reacted parallel the contrasting conclusions of this month’s Big Reads by two liberal humanities professors. NYU literature professor Ulrich Baer, in What Snowflakes Get Right, argues that campuses should establish ground rules that rule out speech that purportedly undermines the equal participation of some based on their identity. Skidmore English professor Robert Boyers, in The Tyranny of Virtue, recognizes the ways in which such well-intentioned concerns for marginalized groups has too often had the effect of precluding serious conversation and making campuses a place of groupthink rather than open discussion. 

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Campus Happenings

Students Burn Author’s Books Outside of Eagle Village
McClain Baxley and Sarah Smith | The George-Anne | October 10, 2019

Students at Georgia Southern University burned copies of Make Your Home Among Strangers, by Jennine Capó Crucet, after the author spoke at the school and participated in a contentious Q&A session. President Kyle Marrero responded, “while it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.” Read President Marrero’s full response here.

UW Regents Move Forward on Widely Criticized Policy Punishing Disruptive Protesters
Kelly Meyerhofer | Wisconsin State Journal | October 11, 2019

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved a scope statement for rules that punish students who disrupt others’ free speech. The proposed policy includes suspensions for students who disrupt speech twice and expulsions for third offenses. Final passage requires the approval of Gov. Tony Evers, who has spoken against the policy. This September, Republican state lawmakers introduced Bill 444, which would require the Regents to enact a similar policy.

A Note to Readers
Angela N. Fu and Kristine E. Guillaume| The Harvard Crimson | October 22, 2019

Harvard student newspaper The Crimson contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for comment in its reporting about campus rallies calling to abolish the federal agency. According to a petition circulated by Act on a Dream, the Harvard student group that led the rallies, reaching out to ICE was tantamount to “tipping them off” and inflicting “harm” on students. In this note, The Crimson stands by its reporting.

University of Michigan Ends Bias Response Team in Free Speech Lawsuit Settlement
Martin Slagter | Michigan Live | October 29, 2019 

One month after a judge allowed the student advocacy group Speech First Inc. to sue the University of Michigan over its harassment policy and Bias Response Team, the parties have settled. As part of the settlement, the University will not reinstate its Bias Response Team. Speech First had argued that the Bias Response Team chilled speech. Instead, the school will maintain a Campus Climate Support system, which cannot impose disciplinary sanctions.

Addressing the Daily’s Coverage of Sessions Protests
From the Editors | The Daily Northwestern | November 10, 2019

Northwestern University student newspaper The Daily Northwestern published photographs of students on social media, used the school directory to contract students for comment, and named student sources in its reporting on protests of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to campus. After students complained to The Daily, the paper retracted the photographs and a source’s name. It apologized in this editorial for “the harm students experienced” from its reporting. Dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism Charles Whitaker expressed support for The Daily Northwestern’s initial reporting.

Op-eds and Think Pieces

We’re Asking the Wrong Question About the Campus Free Speech “Crisis”
Casey Mattox | Washington Examiner | October 14, 2019

“Free expression on campus matters not because there is a unique speech crisis on campus, but because universities are uniquely positioned to address broader societal crises. …There are over 5,000 colleges in the United States, and they aren’t all the same. But together, they are a critical part of the solution for our growing tribalism and intolerance of other points of view.”

2019 Survey of Campus Speech Experts
Nathan Harden | Real Clear Education | October 24, 2019

22 public intellectuals and higher education leaders weigh in on the best and worst colleges for free speech culture. Amongst the top “best” schools were the University of Chicago, Purdue, and a school that made important policy changes after students used the heckler’s veto to silence a controversial speaker in 2017, Claremont McKenna. Schools rated as having the greatest need for improvement include Yale, Harvard, and Williams. Experts also share their insights about “how free speech, viewpoint diversity, and open inquiry relate to the proper mission of a university.”

I Wasn’t Censored When I Was Disinvited
Stanley Fish | Wall Street Journal | November 17, 2019 (Paywall)

Commenting on his recent disinvitation to speak at Seton Hall University, literary scholar Stanley Fish wrote, “Everything depends on the spirit informing the decisions instructors and universities make. The spirit informing the decision not to hear my views and the decision to boycott courses that don’t have race at their center are anti-educational and anti-intellectual.”

Big Reads

The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies
Robert Boyers | Simon and Schuster | September 24, 2019

Skidmore College English professor Robert Boyers draws on literary critic Lionel Trilling’s concept of a “total cultural environment” to characterize today’s colleges and universities as places where a set of received ideas and sectarian identity politics have suppressed free academic discussion. This has baleful consequences for learning: “students are often bright and inquiring, but a good part of that they learn from their most influential teachers and roles models is what not to ask.” Professor Boyers laments how these trends have created a campus call-out culture in a Guardian op-ed.

What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus
Ulrich Baer | Oxford University Press | October 1, 2019 

New York University literature professor Ulrich Baer argues that both liberals and conservatives’ defense of absolute free speech and content-neutral rules for campus speech fail to appreciate that some speech undermines the scholarly and pedagogical purposes of colleges and universities. He argues that universities must adopt ground rules for speech to protect a principle of equality in campus discourse that honors students’ identity and lived experiences. Professor Baer’s book expands upon his 2017 New York Times op-ed.

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