Campus crackdowns are challenging free speech

The crackdown on protesters at Columbia and elsewhere lays bare the challenge of balancing academic freedom with student safety.

Students at a pro-Palestinian college encampment.

Columbia University students participate in an ongoing pro-Palestinian encampment on their campus following last week’s arrest of more than 100 protesters, on April 25, 2024 in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Student protests are heating up around the country, just as the school year is winding down.

At Columbia University in New York, a deadline is nearing for the administration to clear the student encampment off the campus lawn. The NYPD chief of patrol defended his department’s actions earlier this week in arresting over 100 student protesters on campus, writing “Columbia decided to hold its students accountable to the laws of the school. They are seeing the consequences of their actions. Something these kids were most likely never taught,” in a post on X.

But the root of all the arrests and protests at Columbia is, arguably, free speech. In testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in Washington, DC, last week, Columbia President Minouche Shafik struggled to walk a line between ensuring student safety and protecting academic freedom. “We believe that Columbia’s role is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome,” she said, “but instead to create an environment where different viewpoints can be tested and challenged.”

In light of the fierce debate over campus speech and student safety, Today, Explained reached out to the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Irene Mulvey to get her view on the state of free speech on college campuses. AAUP is a nonprofit organization comprising faculty and other professionals in academia whose stated mission is to protect academic freedom and support higher education as a public good. Mulvey shared her insights into whether Columbia and other institutions where crackdowns of protests are happening are living up to those ideals.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. —Miranda Kennedy

Sean Rameswaram

Has protecting academic freedom and supporting higher education become more difficult since October 7?

Irene Mulvey

Yes, it has become more difficult since October 7. Although I would say our job of protecting academic freedom and protecting higher education from outside interference has always been difficult. There’s always been political interference into higher education, and that’s why we were founded. In the past, the interference into higher education has been targeting individual professors, you know, a wealthy donor doesn’t like somebody’s research and they want to get them fired. Or somebody speaks up at a faculty meeting, criticizing the administration and the administration doesn’t want them to get tenure.

What we’re seeing now is an escalation in that the entire enterprise of higher education as a public good in a democracy is being attacked. We’re seeing attacks at the state level with legislation that will censor content — we call these educational gag orders, where there’s legislation that says what can be taught in a college classroom. That’s just outright censorship and the kind of thing you see in an authoritarian society, not a democracy.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has dragged these presidents in front of the committee for a performative witch hunt of a hearing. And that is an escalation because those are private institutions. So it’s a remarkable escalation for the federal government to be intruding into what’s happening at private colleges.

To think about how professors are feeling about these protests, we need to think about how professors feel about higher education. And what professors are thinking [is] that in higher education, we should have a robust exchange of ideas in which no idea is withheld from scrutiny or debate.

Our students have very strong feelings about what’s happening in the Middle East. They are attempting to have that robust exchange of ideas about what’s happening. And I think as faculty members, we support that. Students on a campus, the students are learning from professors. They’re learning how to conduct research on their own. They’re learning how to analyze arguments. They’re learning how to think critically about complex matters.

And they have thoughts about what’s happening in the world [and] on their campuses, with regard to what their campuses are doing to support what’s happening in the Middle East. Faculty members are supportive of this. This is what academic freedom means.

Sean Rameswaram

So it sounds like you don’t support the president of Columbia University calling in the NYPD to make arrests at a peaceful protest.

Irene Mulvey

That’s an understatement. I think what the Columbia president did was the most disproportionate reaction that I’ve ever seen. My understanding is these were peaceful protesters on an outdoor lawn on a campus where they pay a lot of money to attend, and she had them deemed as trespassers and invoked a statute where she has to argue that they are a clear and present danger to the functioning of the institution in order to allow the NYPD on campus.

The most important thing is her response is doing the opposite of what’s supposed to happen on a campus. Her response silenced the voices of the students. Her response suppressed the speech and suppressed the debate. It’s the absolute opposite of what should happen on a college campus, and it was extremely disappointing.

Sean Rameswaram

If you had been in her position as the president of Columbia, and you were dealing with these protests and people [are] saying they feel unsafe, that there’s antisemitic slogans, that there was a protest outside where a Jewish student was told to go back to Poland, how would you have navigated these competing forces?

Irene Mulvey

Yeah, well, it’s not easy. Let’s be clear, there’s no easy answer to what’s going on here. But the principle behind anyone’s response should be education, should be speech, should be debate, should be ideas being put up for justification. And, you know, there could be some kind of forum for the students.

Of course, they have to protect the safety of all students. But if the way you’re choosing to keep students safe is by suppressing somebody else’s speech, that’s a false choice. You don’t have to suppress speech to keep students safe. I agree that these are difficult situations. And I know all of these campuses where these things are happening — Columbia, NYU, Yale — these campuses and these presidents will espouse academic freedom and free speech at the drop of a hat. But if you’re not standing up for those principles at times like these, then those words are completely meaningless.

Sean Rameswaram

It’s interesting because I think what we’re seeing here is the clearest evidence that we haven’t quite figured out where the line is on protecting students versus free speech versus the open discussion of ideas. I think the president of Columbia, Minouche Shafik, made that point in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, that universities haven’t figured this out. The Supreme Court hasn’t figured this out, and it shouldn’t be on universities to figure this out.

Do you have some idea of where the line is between the open academic discussion of ideas and something that could be dangerous for students and thus not permitted?

Irene Mulvey

The way to think about it is in situations like this where there are polarized views, there are really strong feelings for very good reasons. Not all the speech is going to make you comfortable. Academic freedom and free speech can be messy. And so I think you have to err on the side of allowing the speech and allowing the debate and allowing the discussion. When it veers into something that doesn’t feel good, then someone should speak up and say that. But silencing voices because you don’t like what they’re saying is a very dangerous, slippery slope that we do not want to get onto.

Sean Rameswaram

One thing I’ve found heartening following these protests on college campuses for six months is that they’ve mostly been peaceful. Now, that being said, if I’m a Jewish student walking across campus and someone says, “Go back to Poland!” I might start to feel unsafe. If I’m a Muslim student and someone’s doxxing me because of my attending a protest, I might start to feel unsafe. How do college administrators navigate safety, which feels sort of amorphous sometimes, in a free-speech environment?

Irene Mulvey

Administrations — universities — have an obligation to address issues of harassment and hate speech through their policies that have been in place for decades. Because hate speech didn’t just arrive on campus since October 7. We’ve had to address issues like this for decades. So campuses have policies to address issues like that, and their obligation is to keep the campus safe.

For the most part, I feel the protests that I’ve seen have been peaceful. But again, it’s a messy situation. The important way to handle it is to stand back on principles of academic freedom, free speech, and keeping the campus safe, and addressing issues of hate speech through policies that are developed with the faculty.

Sean Rameswaram

You were a professor of mathematics for 40 years — for four decades. I imagine before that, maybe you were a student at a college protest, trying to voice your opinion and embracing free speech. Do you think with all the perspective that you have that this is just a rough patch that we get over and we’re stronger because of it? Or do you think we’re really going to get bogged down here?

Irene Mulvey

Oh, that’s a good question. I did participate in protests as a student during the Vietnam War. I was in high school. But this is definitely a rough patch. And where we come out on the end of it is an open question.

I think what’s happening is part of an agenda to control what happens on campus, not just about the history and policies of Israel. What’s happening now is part of a larger movement, the anti-DEI movement, the anti-CRT movement, which is intended to censor or control what can be learned in a college classroom and what can be taught on campus. I think that’s the real danger, that broader movement, which I think would really damage higher education and the role it’s supposed to play in a democracy — to be a check and balance on politics.

Be sure to follow Today, Explained on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *