The Knight Foundation survey, conducted by Gallup, of where the First Amendment stands among college students and U.S. adults has several interesting findings. One of them cuts to the heart of all the other issues of the First Amendment on campus today:
There is a real perception that campuses are not fully open environments. A slight majority of students, 54%, say the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.
Nobody should find this an extraordinary rate of self-censorship. Instead, we should wonder about the 46 percent who didn’t think that their campus climate suppresses free speech precisely on the grounds of giving others offense. The phrasing of the question doesn’t cover jokes in bad taste, forms of harassment, vandalism, or discriminatory conduct. A bit of discretion and other-awareness is one of the costs of living in polite society. But this goes beyond basic manners and touches on the core of an academic environment — the freedom to press an argument some find disagreeable (as long as you do so with evidence and reasoning). It asks about people’s intellectual statements, about “what they believe”–opinions, norms, values.
The reply shows how far belief has been submitted to sensitivities. Even 19-year-olds now understand that the measure of their thoughts on topics of race and sexuality is the possible reaction of someone, somewhere, who might not be able to sleep that night after hearing those words. It has only taken a few instances of an indiscreet professor or administrator who muttered the wrong words, aroused a protest, apologized profusely for offending others, and slunk off in shame for everyone to get the message. Keep your head down and your mouth shut.
There is another finding in the study that attributes the shutdown of belief entirely to the sensitivities of the complainers, not to the reality of the campus. When students were asked about the racial climate of their campus, 26 percent termed it “excellent” and 48 percent good. That makes three-quarters of all students who have no concerns about systemic racial tensions or problems. Only a mere six percent rated the climate “poor.”
Within this response, too, we find that only 13 percent of black students gave the “poor” rating.
This makes for an astonishing contrast. More than half of students see a “chilling” climate for speech, while barely one-in-twenty see a bad climate for race relations. We know that much of the censorship and offense-taking has to do with race issues, and yet the vast majority of students find that there is no general basis for curtailing speech because of them.
What this suggests is that racial problems on campus have been vastly exaggerated–at least according to the students. The relatively rare racial episode has produced an overreaction. More than two-thirds of students (69%) say that they rarely or never hear anyone make “insensitive comments about someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion.” Given the low bar that the category “insensitive comments” sets, we may assume that the rate of outright nastiness is much lower.
Given the many forms of coarseness that adolescents are disposed to on-line and off-, we should broadcast this finding as a triumph of civility. Indeed, this poll provides abundant evidence against the accusations leveled against colleges in the heated student protests of 2015-16. We all know that Oberlin, Wesleyan, and all the other selective campuses targeted by the students are some of the most progressive and sensitive acres on earth. Now, in this poll, the vast majority of students say the same thing.
I suspect, however, that students know this already. They also know that they can do nothing about the exaggerations. They have seen that college administrators and many professors, too, are willing to go along with them and pretend as if they indicated something real and pervasive at work on their campuses. Again, it only takes one example of the people in power countenancing a patent falsehood for the underlings to realize that truth is no defense.
Let me give you an example.
One year after I arrived at Emory in 1989, a racial incident happened. An African American pre-med student named Sabrina Collins landed in the hospital, mute and traumatized, after finding racist death threats in her dorm room. Her case became a national story, reported in the New York Times and USA Today as well as in the local media.
On March 5, someone had entered her dorm room, scrawled racial epithets, tore her stuffed animals, and poured bleach on her clothing. She reported the incident, and Emory offered safe haven for her and her family off campus plus options for completing her schoolwork. Collins declined, so more locks were placed on her door and a motion detector and alarm system installed. She decided to move out weeks later, however, and as she was doing so, she discovered more racist threats written in nail polish on the floor under a throw-rug. That’s what threw her into a catatonic silence that continued while she recuperated in a hospital in Augusta.
Dekalb County police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry to try to track down the perpetrator. The U.S. Attorney in Atlanta offered to help. Campus officials went into crisis-management mode as protests erupted. One group, Students Against Racial Inequality, judged Emory “a hostile environment for people of African descent.” The leaders of it gave the president 12 demands, including new centers for the study of African American culture, more African American enrollments and professors, and the dismissal of the head of public safety.
I remember the incident and the feeling of disgust. What coward would pick on this poor girl? I thought. She deserves all the support we can give her. A few weeks later, while driving to work, I heard the issue come up on local talk radio, everyone solemnly denouncing the deed as I presumed they should. But then one young man phoned in and said in a halting voice something entirely unexpected. I don’t recall the exact words, but they went something like this:
I know this sounds hard to believe, but this situation may not be what you all think. It looks to me like she may have made the whole thing up. That’s what I’ve heard from some people who know.
The host challenged him, and the caller delicately but firmly stuck to his suspicion. My first response was incredulity. You gotta be kidding. Who would make up something like this up?
Well, not long after the case fell apart. Yes, Collins fabricated the whole thing. On May 31, the New York Times printed a story under the headline, “Woman’s Claim of Racial Crime Is Called a Hoax.” Investigators said that all the evidence pointed back to Collins—fingerprint analysis, the paper and typeface used to make the threats, and the fact that the death threat misspelled the word “you’re” as “your,” an error found in Collins’ own writing. Her symptoms—traumatic muteness, holding herself for hours in a fetal ball—were faked. There was an added speculation by some people that Collins conceived the hoax to distract attention from an Honor Code investigation of her regarding a chemistry exam.
Here is where the duplicity of the administration comes in. When the truth came out, the administrators played it down. “University officials,” the Times reported, “who have tried to steer clear of assessing blame, had little comment today.”
But the advocates didn’t do the same. Here is one of them, whose remarks conclude the Times story:
Otis Smith, president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who earlier assailed Emory, said the new findings were largely irrelevant. ”It doesn’t matter to me whether she did it or not,” he said, ”because of all the pressure these black students are under at these predominantly white schools. If this will highlight it, if it will bring it to the attention of the public, I have no problem with that.”
How familiar has this rationale become? A victim turns out to be not a victim at all, according to the facts—but then she really is a victim because of a pervasive reality that underlies those facts. Lying to expose a bigger truth is no lie, even if there is no evidence of that larger truth except for the distraught condition of the victim. When someone says, “It doesn’t matter whether she did it or not,” and the school leaders don’t come right out and assert, “Yes, it does!” everybody else learns the lesson. You don’t have to have done something to be convicted of doing it. Emory University and all the white people in it were tried and found innocent of the specific charges but walked away guilty of the general charge of being a “predominantly white institution” that makes life terribly hard for black students.
I didn’t see any news stories on the follow-up treatment of Ms. Collins, but I heard that Emory proceeded to cover all of her medical bills. Here is how an undergraduate in Emory Magazine recalled the whole episode 20 years later:
A statewide investigation deemed the alleged hate crime a hoax a few months later, but its impact on the Emory community was anything but inauthentic. In the wake of that incident, students banded together to raise cultural awareness on campus.
Again, the same rationale for deceit prevailed. The crime was a sham, but the response “authentic.” Ms. Collins’ hoax proved to have a salutary impact, raising awareness and uniting students. It’s okay to lie as long as it produces a good outcome.
This way of handling falsehood is an important factor in the self-censorship that afflicts so many people on college campuses. The Knight poll shows how many of them hide their thoughts, and they may be wise to do so in light of the Collins hoax and so many other double-dealing campus episodes of recent times. If people were confident that allegations of harassment, discrimination, and bias would be settled because of the truth, then they might not choke down their beliefs even if those beliefs proved troubling to others.
But if they assume that they may be denounced no matter what the facts are, so long as one party is distressed—particularly a representative of a historically disadvantaged group—then they certainly will take the safe route and be quiet.