I’m a day late to the Discourse™ of course, but I wanted to comment on the recent New York Times opinion piece that was making the rounds, “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.”
The piece is by Emma Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia, who has written about free speech in her college’s student-run newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, and has interned with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — basically, the American Civil Liberties Union, if the ACLU focused exclusively on individual rights issues at colleges.
Before I continue, I recommend reading the piece (linked above). Obviously, right?
So, before I address her piece, let me share my own experience. I started college at one of Miami University’s (Oxford, Ohio, not Florida) regional campuses, Hamilton, in 2009. While there, I began writing a weekly opinion column for the student-run newspaper, The Hamilton Harrier. I was about four or so years into my social and political maturation (with many more years to go, to be sure) and more than willing to say whatever I wanted to in the opinion column.
My editor at the time, Christopher, was similar to Camp in ostensibly believing in free speech, the diversity of viewpoints, and the robust exchange of ideas. In that way, I knew not only that I didn’t mind saying whatever I wanted with my “pen,” but that I had the backing of my editor, should anything come my way.
Well, something did come my way: A professor at the school was upset with one of my columns because I compared the American voter to a person with schizophrenia. She used my column as the final essay in her class, with a prompt akin to, “Please explain why this is wrong and inappropriate.” And I was wrong! Let’s be clear about that, and I later wrote an opinion piece apologizing for being so cavalier with my use of schizophrenia as an analogy. I didn’t feel I was “cowed” or anything. I was simply, legitimately wrong.
Let me hammer this point home, though: A professor used one of my column pieces as a final essay prompt to demonstrate how wrong I was.
And how cool is that?! See, I think that’s so cool that for one, people were paying attention to my piece, and two, that it would be used as a learning lesson. But I have to say, for some reason, I get the sense that Camp would have decried that as censorious and chilling of her free speech. For me, it was exhilarating, not least of which because I was able to access all of the final essays written about my column, which made it even more fun!
Later, when I moved up to the main campus in Oxford, I began writing a weekly column for the student-run newspaper, The Miami Student, and would for four years. For four years, I wrote every “blistering” take you could imagine: In favor of PornHub and the beauty of porn more broadly, arguing the merits of profit-driven organ donation, the positive good of sweatshops, and on and on. I talked about God. I talked about war. I bashed Republicans. I bashed Democrats. Hardly anything of note was off limits in my eyes.
At one point, I waded into the campus rape discussion. I forget now what the context of why I jumped in was; I vaguely remember it having something to do with wanting to defend one of my editors from a charge in a Letter to the Editor that she was being a rape apologist of sorts. I honestly don’t even remember off-hand what my argument was; perhaps I was pushing back on some of what I felt was the hysteria around the issue and the liberal use (not in the political sense) of statistics to make an argument (for example, the oft-cited statistic about the prevalence of rape on campus seems suspect to me).
Eventually, one of the feminist groups on campus asked me to come and talk to them, and mostly, to let them explain to me why my column was hurtful and/or wrong. So, I went to them. I talked to them. We didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on the issue, but we had a pleasant, civil conversation. Again, how cool is that?! That people were paying attention to my words, for better or for worse.
But again, I must say, why do I get the sense that Camp would have been turned off by such an experience? That she would have it seen as a piling on to have Letters to the Editor flying in at her, and for an entire feminist group on campus to be upset with her?
Maybe it is because I’ve never been afraid to write what I think in the opinion pages of student-run newspapers. I don’t intend that as shade against Camp or anyone who writes in the opinion pages of their student-run newspapers, but in m experience, I was (and still would be!) committed to saying whatever I wanted.
I am a free speech absolutist. I 100 percent believe that colleges ought to be a place for robust, diverse viewpoint discussions, and perhaps most importantly, that one of the main points of any good philosophy behind pedagogy is to make the students (and perhaps the professor!) uncomfortable. Learning shouldn’t always be a comfortable process.
Take the scenario Camp describes in her sophomore year about how she thinks non-Indian women can criticize suttee, the historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows, and how the “room felt tense” thereafter. Good! It should feel tense! I don’t see anything wrong with that. And yes, again, in my own experience, I can recall being in her spot many a time, where I voiced a viewpoint that was probably in the minority and where I could feel the room tense. It never occurred to me to think I was being silenced, however. Or to feel uneasy or unwelcome or invisible.
Related to the professor issue in particular, I can remember one exchange I had with a political science professor where she totally shut me down. I think I was pushing back against her viewpoint on Social Security, but regardless, I remember feeling and thinking, What the heck? This isn’t how a professor is supposed to operate.
However, again, where I think I would differ with Camp is what I extrapolate from that: I extrapolate from that experience that that professor kind of sucked, not that the entire academic apparatus at Miami University, or gosh, the entire academic apparatus of universities in general, were/are hostile to viewpoint differences and the exchange of ideas.
Something I always wonder about with these free speech sort of articles: What is it that these self-professed self-censors are censoring themselves on? Everyone self-censors; it’s a matter of operating in polite society, to one degree or another, so that’s nothing particularly noteworthy. But the way in which these self-professed self-censors talk, it makes it seem like something deeply ingrained into their ideology is being self-censored. What is that, I wonder?
Because as someone who didn’t have any fear of writing whatever I wanted, I’m trying to wonder what these people are afraid of sharing? I try not to operate in bad faith. That is, I try to assume everyone is operating in good faith about what they believe and how they are approaching an issue, including free speech, but when people tell me they are self-censoring, whether on a college campus, in the workplace, or even among friends and family, it makes me quite curious what is being self-censored that is seemingly so potentially offensive?
I feel the concern about college campuses turning into “echo chambers” that are hostile to free speech has long been overblown, and are often overblown by people looking at selective cases and/or from the outside. I do appreciate Camp’s column coming from the inside and of her current experience — not to say nothing of her courage (yes, courage) to put her thoughts in the paper of record where it’s sure to be picked to pieces — but overall, I feel like it generalizes too much, describes things I think are actually fine (the “unease”), and makes me curious about what ideological beliefs students are self-censoring.
Finally, one last note, I think one of the best things about the United States is how strong our legal framework is around the First Amendment and free speech rights. That’s great. As I said, I am a free speech absolutist. However, it’s important to note that we ought to not concern ourselves merely with legalities. That is, the culture of free speech matters, too, because often one informs the other, and can even chip away at the other (for good or for ill).
But that is precisely why I think we — the free speech absolutists — need better arguments on our side for the culture of free speech. I’m rarely ever convinced by those who seem to speak in its name.
What did you think of the piece? Or of free speech on college campuses in general?