The Campus Free-Speech Crisis Is Real, and Clemson’s Got It

Published March 29, 2018

National Review Online

You can tell the campus free-speech crisis is breaking into mainstream consciousness by the increasingly frantic efforts to deny it exists. Recent pieces by Matthew YglesiasJeffrey Sachs, and Andrew Hartman say the so-called campus free-speech crisis rests on a series of isolated shout-down anecdotes contradicted by opinion surveys showing broad student support for free speech. Besides, we’re told, today’s controversies aren’t much different than the ones that stirred public concern at the start of the campus “culture wars” three decades ago.

Replies to Yglesias, Sachs, and Hartman from Cathy YoungSean Stevens and Jonathan HaidtRobby SoaveKatie Herzog, and Paul Mirengoff expose weaknesses in their arguments: Although students claim to support free speech in the abstract, they increasingly favor restrictions in particular cases; notably, more than a third of students favor shout-downs as a way of muzzling campus speakers; a determined minority of student radicals can silence an apathetic or fearful majority; and the campus culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties rightly sounded an alarm that prefigured today’s escalating troubles.

We can expand these replies in several ways. Student opinion surveys get us only so far. Today’s campus free-speech crisis grows out of a de facto alliance between radical students, leftist professors, and sympathetic or craven administrators. Nor can we dismiss accounts of what happens on campus as mere anecdote. On the contrary, more rounded accounts of student, faculty, and administrative interaction allow us to make sense of disembodied opinion data.

So let’s have a look at the past twelve years of “anecdotes” from South Carolina’s Clemson University. Instead of looking at titillating tidbits as they pop up day-to-day, let’s take in the big picture over a dozen years at a single school. Many claim the campus free-speech crisis is largely confined to elite private universities on the northeast and west coasts. Clemson is a public campus with proportionally more centrist and conservative students than the elite coastal schools. If the campus free-speech crisis is alive at Clemson, it’s likely far more widely spread.

In the 2000s, Clemson was just another university with an unconstitutional “free-speech zone” policy limiting religious and political expression to tiny out-of-the-way parts of the campus.

In 2006, however, the Clemson Conservatives student group sought to hold a rally in opposition to gay marriage outside an auditorium where the Clemson Gay-Straight Alliance was rallying in favor of same-sex marriage. Administrators told Clemson Conservatives their rally was forbidden, since the area outside the auditorium was not part of Clemson’s official free-speech zone. When Clemson Conservatives asked FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to intervene on their behalf, Clemson abolished its zones, a small but significant victory for free speech.

In 2007, Clemson President James Barker condemned a “gangster-themed” party held over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, where white students appeared to mock black stereotypes. The university organized a meeting at which the partygoers tearfully apologized one-by-one in front of 200 people for behavior they appeared not to have intended to be offensive.

In 2010, a Clemson professor asked FIRE to challenge a policy that required prior administrative approval before any faculty or staff member could speak with public officials at the state or federal levels.

In 2012, FIRE continued to joust with Clemson officials, this time over speech-code policies.

In 2014, a Clemson graduate student named A. D. Carson founded a group called “See the Stripes,” after posting a video poem by that title on YouTube. The video charged Clemson with doing too little to acknowledge its past ties to slavery, and called for more awareness of minority concerns at the school. Membership in “See the Stripes” took off later that year when a fraternity was suspended for holding a gangster-themed party. The controversy continued as a Clemson professor called for publicly shaming every student who’d attended the party, then later appeared to apologize for that demand. One student defended the event as one of the many “theme” parties held at Clemson, and not intended to offend.

In January 2015, “See the Stripes” issued a list of demands, the first of which was that Clemson’s president must denounce the gangster-themed party even more strongly than he already had, and then “prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community.” The apparent implication was that the university should prosecute or punish all attendees of the gangster theme-party, and any other Clemson students who made what “See the Stripes” considered to be “insensitive, ignorant, alienating and (sometimes) criminal/predatory comments on social media.” Eighty members of “See the Stripes” marched to Sikes Hall, Clemson’s administration building, to present their demands.

Later that month, 110 Clemson professors signed a full-page ad in Clemson’s student newspaper, The Tiger, endorsing “See the Stripes’” demands, including its call to prosecute “defamatory” speech. That same issue of The Tiger included a full page “open letter” from three Clemson faculty members defending the First Amendment. The three professors encouraged the Clemson community to oppose “any attempts by Clemson faculty and administrators to silence, suppress, or ‘prosecute criminally’ thought and speech.” FIRE quickly deplored what it called “demands for censorship” by “See the Stripes” and its 110 faculty supporters, while adding that it “couldn’t agree more” with the open letter by the three professors affirming freedom of speech.

In October of 2015, Clemson administrators apologized to students who objected to an allegedly “culturally insensitive” “Maximum Mexican” culinary theme day, where school cafeteria workers wore sombreros. Administrators promised that Hispanic and Latino campus groups would be consulted on any future theme days. Clemson’s cafeteria had been running culinary theme days on Mexican, Southern, and Irish food for years prior with no trouble. Later that month, it was discovered that one of the students who’d complained about the Mexican theme day was co-president of a campus Latino group that had touted a “Super Taco Night” and approved of the “cute sombreros” worn at another dorm theme night.

In March of 2016, a student senator named Mitchell Gunter won reelection with a controversial poster that said “Liberty” over a picture of the candidate holding a rifle and a copy of the Constitution in front of an American flag. The poster, which Gunter called his lighthearted way of supporting the campus-carry issue, drew angry responses from members of “See the Stripes,” as well as from some faculty, who reportedly tried to have the posters removed. Immediately following the Gunter incident, conservative and libertarian groups at Clemson banded together to form a free-speech movement called “WeRoar.” The group was inspired, not only by the Gunter controversy but by FIRE’s continuing criticisms of Clemson’s speech codes and “Bias Incident Response Protocol.”

In early April of 2016, controversy exploded when bananas were found hanging on the edge of a banner honoring African-American history on the Clemson campus. The administration announced that two students had admitted their involvement. As pictures of the bananas spread widely on social media, over a hundred “See the Stripes” supporters launched a sit-in at Sikes Hall to press the group’s demands for more minority students and faculty on campus, mandatory diversity training for all employees, a multicultural center, prosecution or punishment of “defamatory speech,” the creation of a minority “safe space,” and the like. “See the Stripes” founder A. D. Carson was among five students arrested when they attempted to occupy Sikes after hours. The arrested students were immediately hailed as “The Clemson 5,” as sympathetic faculty and staff called for all charges to be dropped. Shortly after the nine-day sit-in, Clemson’s administration accepted many of the protesters’ demands, including diversity training for university employees.

In June of 2016,  emails emerged suggesting that, after hearing from the students who confessed to hanging bananas on the banner pole, Clemson administrators realized the deed had not been racially motivated. Outraged conservative students argued that administrators had knowingly refused to clear the reputation of the student body and instead allowed the bogus banana incident to steamroll the campus into mandatory diversity training.

In May of 2016, keepers at the Cincinnati zoo shot and killed a gorilla named Harambe after he dragged a child who had fallen into his habitat. Harambe the gorilla quickly became the most popular internet meme of the year, spurring a raft of jokes from people of all political persuasions.

In September of 2016, after someone at Clemson complained that Harambe references were offensive and biased, a Resident Advisor attempted to ban all displays of the gorilla. Besides being a clear violation of the First Amendment, the Harambe ban was widely mocked online. The incident forced Clemson to train Resident Advisors in the First Amendment, prompting surprise on the part of several at the breadth of constitutional protections for speech.

In August of 2016, Clemson sparked controversy when it prohibited a man from offering to praywith students outside of an approved free-speech area. (The offer was made silently, with a sign.) Although the zone policy had been banned for students in 2006, it remained in effect for outsiders. Clemson classified the visitor’s silent offer to pray with students as a form of commercial solicitation, drawing objections from students. Clemson’s free-speech coalition, WeRoar, staged a demonstration against the university’s zone policy the following month.

In October of 2016, at the invitation of WeRoar, Milo Yiannopoulos spoke to nearly 800 students at Clemson. Although the talk went off without incident, posters advertising the event were repeatedly ripped down, and threats to disrupt or shut down the proceedings had been issued for months. A threat to “no-platform” Yiannopoulos was reportedly made by one of the “Clemson 5.” Another leftist group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), reportedly promised to vandalize fliers for the Yiannopoulos talk and mocked the idea of free speech. One SDS leader reportedly pledged to donate to the bail fund of anyone who would “put a bullet in Milo’s head.” Clemson professor David Woodard, who advises several conservative groups at Clemson, said students didn’t see Yiannopoulos as “flawless,” but characterized the Yiannopoulos invitation as a proportional response to escalation by “See the Stripes” (presumably referring to the Sikes sit-in and the promised imposition of diversity training).

In April of 2017, Clemson adopted its diversity training for faculty. The program was widely mocked for teaching that it is culturally insensitive to expect members of some groups to show up on time for appointments. The training also contained a module that claimed “freedom of speech and academic freedom are not limitless,” but must be constrained by the values of diversity and inclusion. The training reportedly ended by asking participants to certify they would comply with Clemson’s Anti-Harassment and Non-Discrimination Policy, which FIRE has rated as clearly and substantially interfering with freedom of speech.

In August of 2017, a Clemson professor stirred controversy with Facebook posts that reportedly called all Donald Trump supporters and all Republicans “racist scum,” and appeared to endorse violence rather than dialogue as the best way to deal with the problem.

In September of 2017, some Clemson students took issue with the “safe space” portion of a mandatory diversity course for first-year students. Critics called the course misguided and divisive.

In January of 2018, distribution bins holding the campus conservative paper were vandalized, destroying dozens of papers. The issue of the paper in question included satirical articles on topics like the mandatory freshman diversity course.

In March of 2018, a student pro-life display of crosses memorializing “babies killed by abortion in South Carolina” was vandalized and destroyed. The attack took place when the student overseeing the display briefly left the scene. Just before the vandalism, some students took to social media to express the hope that someone would rip out the display.

Although Clemson doesn’t show up on lists of high-profile shout-downs, it’s experienced a raft of free-speech troubles, from restrictive codes and zones to speech suppression. Threats of violent shout-downs show that further trouble could easily emerge down the road.

The campus free-speech crisis is an intensification of a decades-old pattern. Conflict over zones and codes has been endemic at Clemson for years, yet something clearly happened around 2014–15. As FIRE’s president, Greg Lukianoff has argued, what changed nationally around 2014–15 was that students shifted from being the most reliably pro-free-speech constituency on campus to being a major source of speech suppression. “See the Stripes’” demand for the punishment and prosecution of “defamatory” speech fits the bill.

The faculty’s role in all this is the decisive and truly frightening part of the story. In the aftermath of the Sixties, classically liberal faculty members pressed administrators to put a stop to shout-downs and disinvitations. Yet at Clemson, 110 faculty members publicly backed an unconstitutional student demand for speech suppression, while only three dared contradict it. Under pressure of an active minority of students and an illiberal faculty, cowardly administrators suppressed the truth about an alleged bias incident and adopted a diversity-education program that itself made a hash of free speech. Opinion polls showing majority support for free speech by Clemson’s student body wouldn’t gainsay the damage done by an illiberal alliance between faculty, administrators, and part of the student body. Nor would the presence of politically disengaged students change the fact that the freedom of those who care to voice their opinions is endangered.

Clemson’s liberals and conservative are at daggers drawn, not so much debating national policy as struggling over the ability of one side to control the expression of the other. However Clemson chooses to address issues like historical memorials and faculty diversity hires, those decisions ought to be the outcome of open discussion and debate, not the punishment or suppression of speech.

Far from undermining civility, free speech inculcates the practice of respectful self-restraint in the face of disagreement. Restoration of free speech at Clemson is the best hope for staunching the hair-trigger sensitivities and trolling now embittering its dueling political factions.

“Crisis” is defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” and the “turning point of a disease when an important change takes place.” The condition of free speech at Clemson qualifies as a crisis on both counts. Between administrative weakness and the faculty’s illiberal turn, free speech will not be resuscitated at Clemson in the absence of stronger medicine.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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