By Justin Wier
Youngstown State University was awarded a 2016 Jefferson Muzzle for directing the removal of “straight pride week” posters from campus last year.
This is the 25th year the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has presented the dubious honors. They decided to bestow all 50 upon colleges and universities this year in response to what the press release termed “an epidemic of anti-speech activity” on American campuses in 2015.
“Never in our 25 years of awarding Jefferson Muzzles have we observed such a concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw last year on college campuses across the country,” Josh Wheeler, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center, said in a press release.
Clay Hansen, assistant director of the Thomas Jefferson Center, said the awards are intended to be gentle nudges or tongue-in-cheek reminders that serious infringements of the first amendment happen.
He said the emails showing that Jack Fahey, former vice president of Student Affairs, and Carrie Anderson, assistant director of Student Activities, told student leaders to remove the flyers was an interesting example of university-initiated censorship.
“We frequently see students handling this themselves,” Hansen said. “It’s rare to see the university get involved and encourage that kind of behavior.”
Hansen acknowledged that many of the students awarded muzzles this year have legitimate concerns and grievances, but the Thomas Jefferson Center has issues with the means by which they went about expressing them.
“It’s this idea that the proper response isn’t dialogue or exposing these bad ideas for what they are, but simply shoving them away into a dark corner where they can fester,” Hansen said.
He said bad ideas are disproven through dialogue, which doesn’t happen when they are taken from public view. He referenced a quote from a Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, claiming that the best response to speech we don’t like is more speech.
“It gets difficult at the fringes where you start getting into this speech that is ugly and offensive and hateful,” Hansen said. “But when it gets tough is when the school really needs to prove that commitment [to free expression].”
The press release mentioned the University of Missouri professor attempting to prevent coverage of a public protest, the University of Tulsa suspending a student over comments someone else made on his Facebook page and threatening student journalists for covering the story and Northwestern University instituting prior review of a faculty bioethics journal based on a single article.
Hansen said the limiting of free expression across the academy came about rather suddenly and the origins aren’t entirely clear.
“There is a sense that a lot of students are viewing this sort of hateful speech not just as an expression of ideas, but almost as a sort of violence against them,” Hansen said. “So there’s a tendency to internalize this speech more, and I think that can lead to calls for it to be removed.”
He also said many of the incidents were spearheaded by minority communities, who many feel as if they’ve tried speaking and tried making their voices heard but don’t feel like others are listening.
“It doesn’t help that college administrators are so willing to go along with this idea of excluding undesirable speech from the campus environment,” Hansen said.