When Academic Bullies Claim the Mantle of Free Speech
Harassment should not be protected.
Every week, it seems, a new organization is formed to combat “#cancel_culture” and “#wokeness” — not in order to perpetuate institutional racism, of course, or sexism and sexual assault in the workplace, or indeed any form of injustice, but to champion free speech. Who could possibly be against that? Free speech, open debate — surely this is the bedrock of democracy. For those of us who work at colleges and universities, it is nothing less than our raison d’être. That is why we must support the academic freedom of people we disagree with; it is the condition of possibility for any form of legitimate intellectual disagreement whatsoever.
But then imagine that the following scenario unfolds on your campus: A faculty member shares with her students a CNN article entitled “Math Is Racist.” The article, published in 2016, is a brief discussion of a book by the mathematician and data analyst Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction — a painstaking analysis of “how algorithms and big data are targeting the poor, reinforcing racism, and amplifying inequality.” The faculty member would have no reason to imagine that anyone could plausibly object to discussing the article in class.
She is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”
Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.
The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.
The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.
I am part of the elected leadership of my university’s faculty-union chapter, PSU-AAUP. If you live in the world of Fox News, you might imagine that I am constantly besieged by wokeness, teaching in the smoldering remains of what was once Portland, Ore., before antifa burnt the city to the ground. But here’s the reality: I have now heard from dozens of colleagues who tell me that they cannot say what they think in department meetings or on committees or in the Faculty Senate because it will be wrenched out of context and paraded on one of our resident provocateurs’ Twitter feeds or on a YouTube video one of them splices together.
What can a campus do when some of its faculty members decide to stop conducting themselves like responsible, professional academics and instead to cosplay as cub reporters for Breitbart or The Daily Caller?
Here’s what we did.
When our colleagues used their #Twitter platforms to encourage students to post material from their “woke” and “neoracist” professors on a “woke@PSU” page, we filed a grievance on behalf of all of our members who might find themselves the target of an anti-woke mob. The Faculty Senate also acted. It passed a resolution to remind the campus community that “university policies that spell out the commitment to academic freedom also recognize responsibilities that come with it.”
The university’s president, Stephen Percy, and provost, Susan Jeffords, soon followed with a statement, “Standing With the Faculty Senate on Academic Freedom,” that affirmed the Senate’s resolution and reiterated the necessity of “guarding against abuses” of free speech and academic freedom. “Our values as an institution,” they wrote, “include creating a safe space for a variety of perspectives and debate of intellectual ideas, advancing racial justice, supporting student success, and fulfilling our role as a civic leader and partner within our community.”
PSU-AAUP also issued a statement: “We defend our members’ academic freedom and their right to express it in public forums. However, when this public engagement takes the form of, and indeed encourages, bullying, harassment, and intimidation of our colleagues, all the while invoking academic freedom as a shield, academic freedom is being abused and undermined.”
So what happened? Using the standard pretzel logic of Fox World, Gilley and Boghossian are claiming that their academic freedom is being compromised.
Some academic jokes endure because they are entirely accurate. How can you tell the difference between a bully and an academic bully? A bully knocks you down and takes your lunch money. An academic bully barrels into you, falls over, pretends that you knocked him down, and sues you for your lunch money.
Though Gilley was not named at the Faculty Senate meeting in which the resolution passed, he knew that the resolution was issued in response to his actions. The resolution did not call for his termination, or even that he be disciplined. It did not mention him at all. It simply reminded faculty members of what we already know, because it’s in AAUP policy, it’s in faculty constitutions, and by now it should be axiomatic: Academic freedom does not mean anything goes.
Gilley, though, decided that the Faculty Senate had “littered [the stage] with the bloody corpses of what used to constitute the core principles of the university” — and he spliced together a YouTube video from the publicly streamed video of the Senate meeting.
Another of my colleagues is now receiving messages from the people who subscribe to Gilley’s feed. These are people who replied to his screed with comments like “Pinochet knew what to do with these people” and “Franco did too.”
Over the past decade, something very odd has happened to the idea of academic freedom: It has become conflated with free speech, due either to lazy thinking or to deliberate attempts to confuse the issue. Academic freedom has been weaponized, cut loose from its traditional mooring in intellectual expertise (as has been argued by intellectuals expert in the subject, such as Robert Post and Joan Scott), and deployed to defend professors who deliberately spread medical misinformation in a pandemic (Scott Atlas, looking at you) or help to incite a riot at the U.S. Capitol that they proceed to blame on antifa (John Eastman, you did well to retire).
Professors at public colleges and universities in the United States have the First Amendment right to say any number of vicious, unhinged, and/or batshit-crazy things. That does not mean they have the academic freedom to do so.
There should be no sense in which academic freedom entails the freedom to provoke, encourage, and engage in campaigns of harassment against colleagues. Surely, whatever else we may disagree about, all professors need the academic freedom to discuss the meaning of academic freedom without fear of organized harassment and frivolous lawsuits funded by the deep pockets of conservatives.