Some Clemson Faculty Call for Censorship

In a recent edition of The Tiger, Clemson University’s official student newspaper, 110 faculty and staff members published a petition endorsing seven “demands” of the “Coalition of Concerned Students.” Demands 2-7 call for Clemson officials to construct a multicultural center, provide more funding for “under-represented student groups,” increase affirmative action hiring, rename “offensively named buildings,” and increase diversity training for administrators, faculty, and students.

What shocked the Clemson community was the professors’ support of the students’ first demand, which called on the university “to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media).”

There has been some recent public confusion and debate over the exact meaning of this intellectually incoherent statement. Did its authors and supporting faculty intend to use the word “criminally” as an adverb to modify “prosecute” or as an adjective to modify “predatory behaviors and defamatory speech”? If the former, their intent is said to be malignant; if the latter, their intent is said to be benign. In the end, this is a distinction without a difference.

Targeting ‘Hate Speech’

In a recent attempt to clarify their troubling statement, our “Concerned Students” have unwittingly admitted that their ultimate goal is to criminalize certain kinds of speech: “We want the university to hold people accountable for threats and harassment. That’s all. Criminal, as in hate speech or threats of violence, cyber bullying, stalking, etc.” Since “hate speech” is not a crime, it now seems clear that they are in fact demanding the criminal prosecution of defamatory and other kinds of speech.

In a recent letter-to-the editor  published in The Tiger, a supporter of the coalition unmasks their real intentions: “Maybe it is time” he writes, “to criminalize hate speech because of its damaging effects to the lives of people who have to suffer it: racial minorities, the LGBT community, women, and religious minorities.”

That a minority faction of faculty and low-level administrators would support junior-varsity censorship (e.g., speech codes and free-speech zones) is not surprising in this day and age. Demands for ideological cleansing are common on today’s college campuses. What is shocking, however, is the prospect of faculty members calling for the criminal prosecution of speech, which means that students could be arrested and imprisoned if convicted of speech crimes.

How are we to understand this unprecedented faculty demand for censorship and the criminal prosecution of speech?

Ignorance of the Law

The most charitable interpretation assumes that the petitioning faculty is simply ignorant of the law and what it means to “prosecute criminally” defamatory or any other kind of speech in the United States, never mind at a public university. The fact is that Clemson University has no authority or jurisdiction to prosecute anything criminally. This is the job of law enforcement authorities, including the police and the courts. More importantly, defamatory speech is not prosecuted as a crime in American courts. Defamatory speech is tried in our state and federal courts as a civil action (i.e., resulting only in monetary damages).

Surely our privileged professoriate knows this. Surely they understand the difference between American defamation law and that of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or ISIL, where defamatory speech can result in jail time or worse?

It is inconceivable to me that so many Ph.D.’s could be guilty of such a basic intellectual error, which raises a more ominous question: What if they actually support the criminal prosecution of constitutionally protected speech as a positive good? If this is the case, then the petitioning faculty would be subject to the same kind of moral judgment that decent people have always reserved for censors, thought police, and book burners.

The perverse irony of college professors demanding the criminal prosecution of student speech is mind-boggling. How strange for professors in the department of Communication Studies to censor speech, which means to censor the free communication of ideas—for professors in the department of Philosophy to censor speech, which means to censor thought and inquiry—for professors in the department of English Literature to censor speech, which means to potentially censor the books students read—for professors in the department of History to censor speech, which means to whitewash the past—for professors in the department Education to censor speech, which means to censor the ability to think and learn?

The attempt to intimidate young people with the coercive force of the State is anathema to the noble ideals of higher education. Those who censor almost always do so because they fear their ideas cannot withstand scrutiny in the marketplace of ideas. This is why they also insist upon forced indoctrination (e.g., mandatory diversity training) rather than persuasion and a free exchange of ideas.

This unfortunate turn of events has a silver lining, though. The more important Clemson story concerns a rapidly growing free speech movement. In the same issue of the student newspaper in which the petitioning faculty demanded the prosecution of student speech, I published a competing full-page ad (co-signed by two colleagues) entitled “An Open Letter to Clemson Students.” Our letter pledged to all Clemson students that we will “oppose all attempts by Clemson faculty and administrators to silence, suppress, or ‘prosecute criminally’ thought and speech deemed vulgar, controversial, unpopular, insensitive, offensive, inappropriate, subversive, or blasphemous.” And we mean it!

It is my view that university professors have a moral responsibility to defend their students from those who would censor them. Since the publication of our “Open Letter,” there has been a groundswell of support for free speech.  I have received a number of letters from students who have told me how much it means to them that some of their professors actually support free speech and are willing to defend the integrity of the human mind to think and speak without coercion.

Consider the significance of two particularly powerful letters I received:

Given the current climate at Clemson University, I appreciate your dedication to fight for the rights for students to speak and think free of any interference from outside forces. I personally am scared, as a student at Clemson, for what my future as a student holds for me. Those who should foster and encourage the concept of freedom of speech and thought no longer stand to protect us, but would publicly shame those who are willing to express opinions that contradict their own.

And another student, whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union, wrote:

I was shocked to see how many professors signed in favor of the Coalition for Concerned Students’ demands, as I had previously assumed that freedom of expression and free speech are considered unconditional rights by the majority of Americans. . . . I am not well-learned in political sciences as most of my knowledge about the dangers of censorship comes from stories my parents and grandparents told me about living in the USSR.

Our students have a profound intellectual and moral need to see their teachers stand on principle for the most fundamental right: the freedom to think and speak. Young men and women do not respect cowardice and compromise. Let us therefore reclaim our universities from the nattering nabobs of mediocrity, who fear and loathe independent thought and the spirit of open-minded inquiry. If we can’t defend our students from intimidation, censorship, and indoctrination, then we should all find new careers.

C. Bradley Thompson

C. Bradley Thompson

C. Bradley Thompson is a professor of political science at Clemson University, executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and author of John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty and Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea. His book in progress is America’s Revolutionary Mind: Understanding the Declaration of Independence.

10 thoughts on “Some Clemson Faculty Call for Censorship

  1. As Thompson noted in his excellent evisceration of John Wilson’s post, deconstructing the semantics of the Coalition of Concerned Students’ manifesto is merely an attempt to distract from the true intent behind it. Are we really to believe this group only concerns itself with prosecuting speech that is already recognized as criminal? Such an obvious platitude seems a bit out of place among its other sweeping and impassioned demands. The use of the word “prosecute” was no accident, and the inclusion of “hate speech” with other criminal speech was no accident. Wilson can do his best to dilute the toxic message of this group, but the “concerned students” were not writing as things currently are, but they way they want them to be: a system where hate speech (as they define it) is criminal, and Clemson is empowered to help police it.

  2. Mr. Thompson is right, and his critics, if they have been paying attention to higher education, should be familiar with the game of intolerant “tolerance” going on for decades in persistent calls for prosecution of protected speech. “Hate speech” is not an unprotected category of speech, and any kind of prosecution or even disciplinary investigation of protected speech violates First Amendment rights at a public university. Those who interpret the published statement as including “hate speech” as a category of criminal speech are incorrect. (Even less, “etc.”) I would challenge the critics to identify a specific utterance (or even two), on Yik Yak or elsewhere, that has actually occurred at Clemson so that we have a real case to discuss. Most of the so-called examples of prosecutable speech that I have seen, over many years, have not actually been prosecutable without violating free speech rights.

  3. “Those who censor almost always do so because they fear their ideas cannot withstand scrutiny in the marketplace of ideas.”

    True, but its more than that. Their world view is a huge failure because it does not match reality any more than did the.communists’ view that man is malleable and only needs different economic circumstances. Liberalism in all its forms is a failure because its world view–its view of human nature, the universe and its Creator, the role of government, marriage, family, parents and children, sex, honesty–all of it is not just wrong, but broken, dysfunctional and toxic. It doesn’t work in the real world. The only way they can keep up the Big Lie is to seal out reality. But that didn’t work for the.Soviets and their useful idiots, and it won’t work for these campus totalitarians.

  4. In the written demand in question, the self-described “Coalition of Concerned Students” cites only one sequence of events: a recent fraternity party that spoofed gang membership, followed by some social media posts presumably related to that party. The demand provides no further meaningful specifics of these events.

    The burden of proof is on these self-described “Concerned Students” to show how the cited actions exemplify “behaviors” or “speech” that are a violation of rights and that therefore should be “prosecuted” as “criminal,” “predatory,” or “defamatory.” In the absence of an offering of such proof, the only reasonable judgment of this demand by these “Concerned Students” is that it is an attempt to circumvent the need for proof and to criminalize and thereby end freedom of speech.

  5. Any time you put quotation marks around a group of people, you sound incredibly condescending. Calling them the “concerned students” reads as not far removed from calling them “the blacks.” Moreover, adverbs can modify adjectives–like “predatory” or “defamatory”… the kind of speech that is already illegal.

    1. They are called Concerned Students of Clemson. That is their bloody group name. Would you not quote usually common nouns used as proper nouns? Or are you just looking for an excuse to jerk your knee? And don’t worry, the “concerned students” group includes commies of all colors, not just “the blacks”. And no, I don’t think you know what legal means. So obviously you would not know what illegal is.

  6. Demanding the criminal prosecution of protected speech would be shocking, if it had happened. However, Thompson argues that the question of whether “criminally” modifies “prosecute” or “predatory” is “a distinction without a difference,” citing my article on AcademeBlog. This is incorrect. In fact, it makes a huge difference, and someone from the student group clearly indicated that it’s meant to modify “predatory” and is not a call for criminalizing speech. The fact that this person also has a misguided belief that hate speech is illegal does not change the fact that faculty could have easily made the same interpretation (but without the belief that hate speech is illegal). Thompson also makes an error by assuming that “criminally” must modify both “predatory” and “defamatory” when there’s no basis for that assumption. Thompson claims to be giving a “charitable interpretation” of the faculty’s beliefs when accusing them of “intellectual error,” when in reality his interpretation is neither charitable nor accurate.

    1. After careful reading, I think this is a case of a “squinting modifier,” where a poorly placed modifier leads to confusion. The adverb could either be modifying “prosecute,” a verb, or “predatory,” an adjective. Likely the intent was the latter, and the writer simply coined an awkward phrase for hate speech. Are there any laws in South Carolina against hate speech? If so, they are likely unconstitutional. More likely, the university has a policy against use of hate speech, and prosecute was, therefore, another poor choice of words, because, as Dr. Thompson pointed out, it is not the job of the university to prosecute anything.

    2. The ever present but never interesting AAUP troll, John K. Wilson, should have left well enough alone. In my essay for Minding the Campus, I discreetly and diplomatically eviscerated his convoluted and contradictory blog post for the AAUP in just a few sentences. And now he’s back for more!

      I’ll try to make this simple, so that even John Wilson can understand.

      To repeat: at question is the following demand from a list of seven demands from the Clemson “Coalition of Concerned Students” (and supported by 110 faculty and staff members): “[W]e want a public commitment from the Clemson University Administration to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media).”

      The adverb “criminally” could modify either the verb “to prosecute” or the adjective “predatory” and its noun “behaviors.” As written, the adverb “criminally” is what Anne Tomasso rightly calls a “squinting modifier,” which means that, grammatically, the adverb could modify either the verb or the adjective.

      Recognizing the potentially self-inflicted wound to the greater cause, Wilson then sought clarification from the student leader who wrote our ambiguous sentence. But the “clarifying” evidence provided by our syntactically-challenged student-author actually works against Wilson. The Clemson student he quotes says: “We want the university to hold people accountable for threats and harassment. That’s all. Criminal, as in hate speech or threats of violence, cyber bullying, stalking, etc.”

      To the extent that we can make sense of this convoluted statement, we are drawn inexorably to one conclusion: Clemson’s “Concerned Students” and supporting faculty want the university to hold students, faculty, and administrators criminally accountable for “hate speech,” which they think (falsely) is a crime, or, and what is more likely the case, they actually want “hate speech” to be a criminally prosecutable crime.

      But there’s more. Another “Concerned Student,” writing in support of the censors, unmasked their real intentions: “Maybe it is time” he writes, “to criminalize hate speech because of its damaging effects to the lives of people who have to suffer it: racial minorities, the LGBT community, women, and religious minorities.”

      Thank you. The end.

      But I’m a gentleman, so I’ll give John Wilson one more chance. Let’s assume with him that “criminally” modifies only “predatory behaviors” and that’s all. What are we left with?

      What Wilson doesn’t understand is that the key word in the contested sentence is not the adverb “criminally” but the verb “to prosecute.” No matter which way Wilson and our petitioning professors squint, they can’t escape their call “to prosecute . . . defamatory speech.” The verb “to prosecute” has a specific legal meaning that applies to criminal law but only colloquially (at best) to university administrative hearings. A public university bound by the First Amendment has no legitimate role prosecuting alleged defamation, even less so when students associate the term with “hate speech.”

      University speech tribunals cannot legally “prosecute” speech code violations. They can’t even prosecute “criminally predatory behaviors.” Only the police and criminal courts of law can do that. And since neither Clemson University nor the state of South Carolina have the authority to “prosecute” defamatory speech, we are left to assume that the criminal prosecution of certain kinds of speech is their ideological-political goal, i.e., to have either Clemson or the state of SC prosecute (which means criminally) defamatory speech.

      In the end, as I wrote in my essay, the squinting modifier represents a distinction without a difference. Either way, the clear and irrefutable meaning of our censoring professors is that they want to not only censor but to criminally prosecute speech.

      In his attempt to defend the censors (as opposed to the truth), John Wilson splits many hairs but in the end the only hairs he splits are his own.

      1. Thompson seems to think that being simplistic is always right, so I’ll try to simplify the complexities here for him. A group of students used some inexact language. They put the word “criminally” in an ambiguous location, which Thompson misinterpreted, whereas I made a much more logical interpretation, and then bothered to check with the student group, which confirmed my interpretation. They used the word “prosecute” when they obviously meant campus disciplinary punishment, which Thompson bizarrely turns into an impossible demand for criminal prosecution by the university. When Thompson concludes that not only the students but all of the faculty who endorsed this general statement had a “clear and irrefutable meaning” to throw students in prison for offensive speech, he is not just incorrect, but completely dishonest (and finding one student who says “maybe” we should criminalize hate speech doesn’t change the fact that Thompson’s interpretations of the statement are obviously wrong). Now, I disagree with punishing hate speech, and I have sharply criticized any penalties for defamation in campus conduct codes. But even though I disagree with these students, I think we should argue with what they actually say, and not Thompson’s fictional interpretation of it. Calling me a “troll” is just more evidence that he wants to demonize those he disagrees with, rather than arguing with the substance of their ideas.

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