News & Politics

Congratulations to the 50 U.S. Colleges That Won a 'Jefferson Muzzle Award'

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Every year, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (TJC) hands out its Jefferson Muzzle Awards — an honor usually reserved for oppressive federal agencies that curtail free speech.

But this year, the TJC couldn’t resist a riper target: the explosion of intolerance and anti-free speech bullies on college campuses.

Since 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Center has awarded Jefferson Muzzles to those individuals and institutions responsible for the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to free speech during the preceding year. Our usual practice has been to select eight to twelve recipients each year, reflecting the unfortunate reality that threats to free expression regularly occur at all levels of government. This year, however, we were compelled to take a different approach. Never in our 25 years of awarding the Jefferson Muzzles have we observed such an alarming concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw last year on college campuses across the country. We are therefore awarding Jefferson Muzzles to the 50 colleges and universities discussed below, both as an admonishment for the acts already done and a reminder that it is not too late to change course.

They have divided the “winners” into 5 categories: Censorship of Students, Censorship by Students, Efforts to Limit Press Access on Campus, Threats to Academic Freedom, and Censorship of Outside Speakers.

You will recognize many of these Muzzle Award recipients, as PJM has highlighted their transgressions against free speech.

Censorship of Students:

If you want to single out a tipping point in the spread of anti-speech activity on campuses last year, look no further than theUniversity of Oklahoma. In March 2015, a video emerged showing a busload of tuxedo-wearing Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members singing a racist chant. Within 48 hours of the video going public, OU president David Boren severed all ties with the fraternity and expelled two students identified as leading the chant. Imploring other administrators to adopt the same zero tolerance policy against racist speech, Boren vowed that OU would be “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue.” Unfortunately, he was right. Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) notes that “colleges have seized on the University of Oklahoma’s unconstitutional actions as a signal that they have an ‘all clear’ to toss free speech and basic fairness out the window.”

Censorship by Students

Shortly before Halloween, the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale sent an email to students cautioning them against wearing costumes that could be perceived as “culturally unaware or insensitive.” When one professor had the temerity to gently and respectfully suggest that students might be capable (and perhaps even better off) navigating these waters themselves rather than relying on university oversight, she was condemned, shouted down, and ultimately chased off campus.

Efforts to limit press freedom on campus

In one of 2015’s most unforgettable moments, Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media studies at the University of Missouri, was captured on video attempting to prevent press coverage of a public protest on campus. Click, who herself had put out calls on social media for national media coverage of the protests just two days earlier, was shown asking “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” and calling for “some muscle” to help remove a student photographer filming the incident. Click was fired in February 2016.

Threats to Academic Freedom

Administrators failed to uphold academic freedom at Butler University, where unflattering coverage in the student newspaper led to the paper’s faculty advisor being removed and replaced with a member of the school’s public relations department. A faculty advisor for the student paper at Northern Michigan University was similarly ousted. And at the Community College of Philadelphia, an adjunct professor was suspended after speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally on campus.

Censorship of outside speakers

Students at numerous universities attempted to exclude certain viewpoints from being heard on their campuses in 2015. Such efforts do all members of the community a disservice by stifling open debate and the ability of others to hear and challenge controversial ideas. One constant feature of this category of campus censorship is that it is embraced by students of all political ideologies. Outside speakers were challenged in equal number by the right and left, and while not all attempts were ultimately successful, each served to diminish free speech principles on their respective campuses.

Brings back fond memories, doesn’t it?

Trying to shame the shamers usually doesn’t work because most of these people do not possess the ability to engage in introspective thinking. Nor were they born with an empathy gene. One would need both to feel shame and recognize wrongdoing.

No matter. We can still point a finger and laugh at these anti-free speech scofflaws whose antics get weirder and crazier as we go along.