Writer criticizes college culture of censorship
On Monday night, Brandeis Conservatives and the Student Union co-sponsored a talk about freedom of speech on college campuses. The talk was held in Schwartz Hall at 6:45 p.m. and featured a lecture and question-and-answer session with Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf.
Mark Gimelstein ’17, vice president of Brandeis Conservatives, explained in his introduction to the event that Brandeis Conservatives’ club members “felt a talk of this nature was necessary on the Brandeis campus, and indeed all college campuses.” He explained that “unfortunately, there is a general trend in academia of many students’ basic rights on college campuses across the United States being systematically taken away as a result of measures such as safe spaces, free speech zones, microaggressions and other tactics.”
In his talk, Friedersdorf said that he generally feels “closer to the average college student than the average American. But, he continued, “I feel totally out of step with the social justice movement on campus.” Specifically, Friedersdorf spoke about some of the issues and gave his observation about free speech issues on college campuses.
Friedersdorf spoke about how the free speech climate at colleges does not match the wider world. “Undergraduates at private institutions are preparing to enter a world where the next-door neighbor in their apartment building or the guy who gets the bus at the same time as them every morning or the woman who gets in the Uber that they drive to make a little extra money … can say whatever they want, and there’s no dean of equity and diversity to contact, and no anonymous microaggression site to register a complaint,” he said.
For Friedersdorf, the problems facing discourse are many, but his talk placed the blame primarily on what he calls “groups that are intolerant of dissent.” However, he went on to explain that his intent is not to “vilify student activism.” He had positive commentary about the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said drew attention to police abuses that much of his own journalism focuses on.
He also spoke extensively about the evolution of speech codes and how courts have repeatedly struck down many these codes as a violation of the First Amendment. “History shows that the least powerful people in any setting rely the most on strong free speech norms,” he said.
Throughout his talk, Friedersdorf referenced recent events that have occurred on the Brandeis campus, such as the Ford Hall 2015 protests in November and December. Although he was not present for these events, he offered what he termed “constructive criticism” based on his experience with other campus protests, as well as online accounts. One such criticism: “When I read the student demands published by activist groups, very few call for more study of anything. … There’s this vague notion that white supremacy or institutional racism or interlocking systems of oppression or systemic bias are what ails us. But those are just buzzwords if you can’t drill down to how they actually affect people.”
“It isn’t disrespecting students to try and get a better understanding [of racism]. It’s the only way to actually help them,” he continued.
In an interview with the Justice, Gimelstein said that many campus conservatives are frustrated with what he termed a lack of “open discourse” at Brandeis. “The faculty is very liberal,” he said. “The students are taught very liberal things, they’re taught that conservative ideology from the get go is wrong, that it can not be truthful. ... [This] does a disservice to people who want an actual discussion on college campuses.”
“College campuses are fundamentally unfriendly to conservatives,” Gimelstein continued. “That has to change, and I think that Brandeis should be the leader in this regard.”
Friedersdorf expressed the belief that free speech is in jeopardy on college campuses, and yet that is an opinion that is not universally shared. Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC) told the Justice in a telephone interview, “I’ve felt quite comfortable saying whatever I want [at Brandeis, even though] my course makes statements sometimes that are somewhat provocative.” At the same time, Fellman was also clear that “liberals and radicals tend to make the mistake of dismissing conservatives; … they tend to dismiss people who disagree with them without listening to them or or honoring them. And I think that’s a big mistake. … When somebody says something offensive, [we should] try to figure out why they said it, and the best way to figure out why they said it is to ask them.”
Friedersdorf graduated from Pomona College in 2002. He then obtained his first journalism job as a beat reporter for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Pomona, where he covered immigration protests. As a writer for the Atlantic, Friedersdorf has found the freedom to cover topics that interest him, such as civilian death from police abuses of power, drone strikes, government surveillance and civil liberties violations affecting Muslim populations.
—Editor’s Note: Mark Gimelstein ’17 is a columnist for the Justice.