Remember the Bush administration’s color coded alert system for possible terrorist attacks? No one could ever understand how it was going to assist us. What were we supposed to do in response to a warning? Nada (or use duck tape). But our fear levels did increase when we were told that it was a yellow or an orange day. And if it were a red one: you headed for your backyard fallout shelter, if you were lucky enough to have one handy from the Cold War.
If you watch the local news on TV, you will in all likelihood think that every day is kind of yellow or orange day in your town, because virtually all you see are stories about robberies, assaults, murders, and natural disasters, etc. This leads to the notorious Local T.V. News Anxiety Syndrome. Some days are worse than others. When we are offered the local news equivalent of the orange or red alert levels, we fear simply stepping outside of our homes.
David Brooks’ June 2nd column in the NY Times, “The Campus Crusaders,” leads us to believe that free speech is going to hell in a hand basket on college campuses, that we are living at an orange or a red level of threat to our rights.
Today’s campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination — which is admirable. They are also going after incorrect thought — impiety and blasphemy. They are going after people for simply failing to show sufficient deference to and respect for the etiquette they hold dear. They sometimes conflate ideas with actions and regard controversial ideas as forms of violence.
To support his claim he cites three possible cases of this campus activism, the web site FIRE (“Foundation for Individual Rights in Education”), a book, and an essay on the topic. Sounds impressive. But let’s get some perspective.
How much of a problem do we actually have here? I checked FIRE’s web site. It highlights nine top cases between November 20, 2014 and May 20, 2015. Some of these cases have nothing to do with campus activists–that is, the students whom Brooks describes–or faculty discriminating against colleagues or students who hold different views.* When you hit a tab on Religious Liberty, you find eleven cases between 2006-2012. And under the tab Free Speech, there are twenty cases listed from the end of May 2014 to May 20, 2015, including one on the termination of a University of Arizona professor for marijuana research, that may have involved retaliation by a state legislator.
FIRE obviously understands its mandate to defend individual rights rather broadly, covering a lot of territory not addressed in Brooks’ article. Certainly every case that FIRE takes up or reports isn’t going to be of equal merit. (And it should be noted that the organization appears to have a libertarian agenda and seeks cases to profile on its site.) Of course FIRE can’t be expected to get involved in or know about every case. But let’s consider some of the numbers here.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2012, the last year for which it has complete figures, there were 20.6 million college students. The same report tells us that there were 1.5 million faculty members in 2011.
FIRE’s cases primarily involve students, student groups, and faculty. Let’s assume that there were 1,000 times the 20 free speech incidents that FIRE lists for the past year, and because groups of students are sometimes involved, let’s also assume that each incident averages 10 people. This yields 10 x 1,000 x 20. That’s 200,000 people who might have been involved. That’s a lot of people, and I daresay if there were 200,000 people involved each year we would be hearing a lot more about this topic. Our fear meter would be at least in orange territory. However, in the U.S., as noted, there are over 20 million students and 1.5 million faculty. Even if we are talking about 200,000 people being affected, it would still only be 1% of our student population. If you added professors, it would be less than 1%.
Of course I can’t prove that these estimates are correct with the data available and without more refined categories to discuss the cases. Nevertheless, I do think they begin to show that we may be dealing with a version of the Local T.V. News Anxiety Syndrome, which involves focusing on a limited number of cases and generalizing.
Ah, but you say, it’s not only actual cases on campuses. It’s the fear that people have that they could be threatened if they speak out of turn, if they aren’t politically correct. You hear this claim in various forms, including that people are frightened that they might be shamed on social media.** No doubt, this can be a problem. However, I suggest that many of those who are frightened are suffering from a version of the Local T.V. News Anxiety Syndrome.
We know whose interests the Homeland Security Alert System served: those who wanted to keep the country on a war footing. (This is not to say that those who created the system had this intention.) And we know whose interest the scary stories on local news serves. Networks and sponsors. So, who does the academic version of the Homeland Security Alert System serve? Those who support a script that the Right in this country has been promoting for years: American campuses are hotbeds of radicalism. Professors won’t stop promoting their leftist ideologies, even if it means denying students and colleagues their free speech rights.
None of this is meant to deny that there are violations of free speech on college campuses. There are also violations in many other types institutions. We need to be vigilant in protecting our rights, but we should not be driven into accepting a narrative that is the equivalent of the evening news’ take on reality. Long story short: Just say NO to any academic version of the Local T.V. News Anxiety Syndrome.
UPDATE: June 3rd, 2015: A few hours after this piece was posted, Ari Cohn from FIRE tweeted at me: “Couple of points: (1) FIRE has no ‘libertarian agenda.’ We are proudly non-partisan; (2) not every case we take ends up on our website.” I responded that I would add an update mentioning his claims. However, I also noted that I said that FIRE “appears to have a libertarian agenda,” which it does appear to have if you look at the site. But this may simply involve a disagreement about what libertarianism involves. FIRE can see itself as non-partisan, because it takes cases regardless of people’s politics, and still have a libertarian agenda. Regarding the second point, I factored this possibility in by using very large hypothetical numbers. Nevertheless, given the way in which FIRE’s site is set up, I would be surprised if most of the cases were not listed. One reason for the site’s existence is to advertise problems as FIRE sees them. Another is to advertise its good works. In addition, I mentioned to Ari Cohen that his two points don’t really address the major themes of my post. I mean, OMG, the acronym for their organization is FIRE.
* An example of a case that doesn’t fall under Brooks’ concern: St. Charles Community College: Adjunct Faculty Barred from Gathering Petition Signatures.
** The bogeyman of social media is mentioned in Laura Kipnis’s article, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” the one Brooks cites. “Get real: What’s more powerful—a professor who crosses the line, or the shaming capabilities of social media?”