The New York Times pro-Hillary campaign coverage leaves much to be desired, but the paper has been decent recently on at least one issue important to conservatives: Free speech on college campus.
Saturday’s off-lead story covered the surprisingly strong welcome letter the University of Chicago sent to its incoming students: “University of Chicago Rebels Against Moves to Stifle Speech.” The text box: “Rejecting ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces.’”
The report by Richard Perez-Pena, Mitch Smith, and Stephanie Saul followed a previous front-page story earlier this month about how such speech-squelching was hurting colleges where they lived, as disgusted donors closed their checkbooks.
The anodyne welcome letter to incoming freshmen is a college staple, but this week the University of Chicago took a different approach: It sent new students a blunt statement opposing some hallmarks of campus political correctness, drawing thousands of impassioned responses, for and against, as it caromed around cyberspace.
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the class of 2020, who will arrive next month.
It was a not-so-veiled rebuke to the protests calling for limits on what kinds of speech should be condoned on campus, and who should be allowed to speak, that have rocked Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and many other colleges and universities in recent years. Some alumni, dismayed by the trend, have withheld donations from their alma maters.
The Chicago letter echoed policies that were already in place there and at a number of other universities calling for “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.” But its stark wording, coming from one of the nation’s leading universities, and in a routine correspondence that usually contains nothing more contentious than a dining hall schedule, felt to people on all sides like a statement.
Kevin Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University in Des Moines, dismissed the letter on his website as “a manifesto looking for an audience,” one that “relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance.” The Heritage Foundation wrote on Facebook that the letter “will make you stand up and cheer.”
Conservatives have been the loudest critics of campus political correctness, and hailed the Chicago statement as a victory. Mary Katharine Ham, a senior writer for The Federalist, a conservative website, wrote that it was “a sad commentary on higher education that this is considered a brave and bold move, but it is, and the University of Chicago should be applauded mightily for stating what used to be obvious.”
The prominently placed articles are a welcome corrective to the paper’s past indulgence of such anti-speech attacks . Still, this being the Times, the reporters couldn’t quite hail conservatives as free-speech heroes, despite the fact that they are the ones whose appearances are being forced off campus.
But while conservatives often frame campus free speech as a left-versus-right issue, the dispute is often within the left.
“Historically, the left has been much more protective of academic freedom than the right, particularly in the university context,” said Geoffrey R. Stone, a University of Chicago law professor who specializes in free speech issues. Conservatives “suddenly became the champions of free speech, which I find is a bit ironic, but the left is divided.”
Mr. Lukianoff said he and his group are often mistakenly called conservative, adding, “I’m a former A.C.L.U. person who worked in refugee camps.”
The Times also provided plenty of space at the end to those who think speech concerns are “overblown.”
Many academics say the concerns reflected in the University of Chicago letter, while real, are overblown. “I asked faculty if any had ever been asked to give trigger warnings,” said Dr. Roth, of Wesleyan. “I think one person said they had.”
Eric Holmberg, the student body president at the University of Chicago, said the letter suggested that administrators “don’t understand what a trigger warning is,” and seemed “based on this false narrative of coddled millennials.”
Sara Zubi, a Chicago junior majoring in public policy, said the dean’s letter seemed contrary to some of the support programs the university has created or endorsed, like a “safe space program” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. “To say the university doesn’t support that is really hypocritical and contradictory,” she said, “and it also just doesn’t make sense.”