“Illiberalism” is a word I often use for intolerant behavior, but it’s too weak for what’s happening on some college campuses. The New York Times has an account of what some of the protesters at the University of Missouri were doing.
Tim Tai, a student photographer on freelance assignment for ESPN, was trying to take photos of a small tent city that protesters had created on a campus quad. Concerned Student 1950, an activist group that formed to push for increased awareness and action around racial issues on campus, did not want reporters near the encampment.
Protesters blocked Mr. Tai’s view and argued with him, eventually pushing him away. At one point, they chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go.”
Melissa Click, a professor of mass media, reportedly tried to incite the protesters to violence:
As the video nears its end, the person taking the video, Mark Schierbecker, emerged from the scrum and approached a woman, later identified as an assistant professor of mass media, Melissa Click, close to the tents. When he revealed that he was a journalist, Ms. Click appeared to grab at his camera.
She then yelled, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
Click has since apologized and resigned from what’s described as a “courtesy appointment,” so the focus shouldn’t be too much on her. The problem is that a noticeable number of the protesters — not a majority, but still too many — were overtly hostile to press freedom, and that this hostility was largely instigated by faculty and staff members. An NPR article tells us:
Yet an administrator repeatedly tried to block a student journalist, Tim Tai, from taking pictures on assignment for ESPN. “You need to back off,” she told him, flanked by student protesters. “You are infringing on their right to be alone.” She helped lead a group of students who essentially steamrolled Tai away, even as he calmly asserted his First Amendment rights to be there.
That administrator, Janna Basler, is the university’s assistant director of Greek life and leadership in the student life division.
What happened there was unusually physical but not unique. It’s the result of many years of teaching and policies designed to suppress open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gives the University of Missouri a “red” rating. Its policies cite “comments about a person’s clothing [or] appearance” and “off-color jokes” as forms of sexual harassment. Students are encouraged to report “any act of intolerance, such as graffiti, name-calling, threats, hate crimes or extreme examples of bias incidents – regardless of severity.” (Emphasis added) Calling someone a jerk is something that should be reported, they tell the students.
The result, at many colleges like this, is that students have come to regard any unpleasant-sounding communication as a threat. “Safe space” has come to mean a space where only those who express approved views are safe. Yet this hasn’t let faculties create a docile, submissive, student body. As the boundaries which they consider “safe” narrow, the students learn that they’re entitled to be safe from anything outside their narrow worldview. At Yale University, students have demanded the resignation of administrators who suggested it’s not the university’s role to dictate acceptable Halloween costumes.
They’ve been taught that free communication is the enemy. A sensible person knows that when muscle trumps reporting, those in power win, but they’ve been taught only to fear, not to think. Any danger to students would only become far worse if unobserved. Here I’m talking about actual, physical danger, not hurt feelings. If they’re concerned about vandalism and intimidation directed against black people, they should want as much daylight as possible. Instead, we’re seeing students and staff taking the same position as Ferguson cops.
Professors may think they’re doing students a favor with their safe-from-controversy spaces, giving the students four more years before they have to grow up. It isn’t working that way. They’ve just produced frightened and intolerant students, and even the faculty and administrators aren’t safe when they lash out. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they’ve created a monster that has turned on them.