These are dark days for free speech and campus journalism. Just in the last few years, there have been countless examples of campus strife over who can say what and when. One of the latest concerns Wesleyan University in Middletown, where the student government has retaliated against The Argus for publishing an op-ed that was moderately critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Disclosure: I received my master’s degree from Wesleyan and lived in Middletown’s North End for most of my time at the university. I had nothing but positive experiences there, but no longer maintain a relationship with Wesleyan beyond writing an occasional check to the development office.
The Wesleyan Argus, one of the oldest student newspapers in the nation, published the op-ed back in September. It was written by Bryan Stascavage, a 30-year-old sophomore, Iraq war veteran, and self-described moderate conservative.
Stascavage did not attack the Black Lives Matter movement in general but went after its more radical elements, whom he suspects are partly responsible for the recent wave of attacks on law enforcement officers. Stascavage’s piece was longer than necessary and he did ramble a bit. Yet I’d say he was entirely reasonable in his assessment and was clearly within the mainstream of political thought in this country.
The reaction stunned me. Even by the hypersensitive standards of political correctness that dominate the academy, the response among segments of the Wesleyan student body was over the top.
Within hours of the op-ed’s publication, a group of outraged students reportedly began stealing and destroying copies of The Argus. A petition demanding the Argus be defunded and boycotted began circulating. Moreover, the Argus was harassed by the aggrieved who demanded an apology.
In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage, insisting that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told the Washington Post. Others students muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.
The Argus editors issued a sniveling apology lamenting, among other things, that the paper had failed to publish an opposing view next to it. Of course, they had no obligation to do so. Newspapers all over the world run stand-alone opinions pieces but are open to publishing alternative views in response. That’s the problem with the Wesleyan student government. Instead of immediately offering a column expressing an opposing point of view, they chose to simply slash the paper’s funding. In other words, getting even is better than more speech.
It is is shocking that students at an elite university like Wesleyan could display such profound ignorance on the matter of free speech. Then again, maybe it’s not so shocking when you consider that no less than a professor of mass media at the University of Missouri last week called for “some muscle” to remove student journalists attempting to cover a demonstration in a public place.
And as my colleague Barth Keck so eloquently observed on these pages last week, an obvious irony was lost on members of the Wesleyan student government when they retaliated against the Argus for publishing a piece by a veteran who has fought to preserve our freedoms, including the First Amendment.
University leaders are not known for their courage but Wesleyan President Michael Roth showed more moxie than the paper’s editors when he stuck up for the Argus in the face of the fierce backlash. Roth penned a letter, entitled Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech, in which he argued that “Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable.”
But the Wesleyan incident is really part of a much larger problem. On too many college campuses, too many students operate under the assumption that they have “a right not to be offended,” as Roth put it. I can only assume that attitude is handed down from those who are leading the students — namely their instructors.
From campus speech codes to microaggressions to safe spaces, the road to paradise where no one is offended is littered with the terms of victimhood and effrontery. In a nod to Allan Bloom, some have called it the “coddling of the American mind.” Now if we could only get the easily offended students to understand that the real world does not offer trigger warnings.
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