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Is there a free speech crisis on college campuses?
Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, was recently cleared of wrongdoing over a controversial essay she published on sexual politics on college campuses. But there are those that still worry that university life has turned its back on academic freedom. - photo by JJ Feinauer
Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, recently found herself caught up in a campus controversy for an essay she published on sexual politics on college campuses.

Students, according to her own report, were upset by an article that ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education on "sexual paranoia" in the academic world. The focus of her article, which was published online in February, refuted the growing trend of prohibitions against romantic relationships between students and professors.

Not everyone was pleased with her thoughts on the matter most notably, the students who protested Kipnis' research. But while she didn't feel too threatened by the students' demands of "a swift, official condemnation" by the university, things eventually took a turn for the serious, and Kipnis felt as if she could no longer ignore her accusers.

"Things seemed less amusing when I received an email from my university's Title IX coordinator informing me that two students had filed Title IX complaints against me on the basis of the essay and 'subsequent public statements,'" Kipnis explained in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall) on May 29.

Title IX is, of course, a federal law that "prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding." Kipnis, a woman and a self-proclaimed feminist, was shocked and confused that her writing could be classified as a form of gender discrimination.

According to her own account, Kipnis struggled with little success to understand the charges against her.

"Apparently the idea was that they'd tell me the charges, and then, while I was collecting my wits, interrogate me about them," she wrote.

Eventually, Kipnis became privy to her charges, which were apparently filed by two graduate students who believed her essay impacted "students' ability to report sexual misconduct" on campus. She also discovered that something she said on Twitter was being taken into acount for the investigation.

"Please pause to note that a Title IX charge can now be brought against a professor over a tweet," she wrote in her explanation of events. "Also that my tweets were apparently being monitored."

In the end, however, as an editor's note at the top of her article explaining the investigation mentions, Kipnis was "cleared of wrongdoing" in the investigations (there were technically two).

So, no harm, no foul? Not quite. There are those that still worry that university life has turned its back on academic freedom and protection of free speech, and Kipnis' case has only stoked their fears.

"The problem is that the campus activists have moral fervor, but don't always have settled philosophies to restrain the fervor of their emotions," New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in response to Kipnis' experience.

"Today's campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination which is admirable," Brooks continued. "They are also going after incorrect thought impiety and blasphemy."

According to Brooks, many of those who wish to rid college campuses of "historic wrongs" are conflating "ideas with actions," which has led them to "regard controversial ideas as a form of violence." This, according to Brooks, has led to an environment where "students and the professors and the peers they target are talking past each other."

Brooks' argument criticises the tactics and methods of the warriors, not necessarily the battle being fought. The problem is that curbing speech and punishing unpopular opinions is a violation of liberal ideals, not that the causes they are fighting for are unworthy.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait echoes Brooks' argument, adding that he believes it all comes back to the controversy of political correctness.

According to an earlier essay by Chait, political correctness is "a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate," and in its most current incarnation "flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach."

"Kipnis story provides another marker in the ongoing resurgence of political correctness," Chait argued on Tuesday.

"Adherents of this ideology (p.c. culture) tend to view the distinction between actions and expression, which is a lynchpin of liberal thought, with skepticism," he continued. "Of course, free speech theorists have always recognized extreme circumstances in which speech can become action (shouting fire in a crowded theater, fighting words, blackmail, etc.), but p.c. ideologists collapse the distinction into virtual nonexistence, at least on matters of identity."

But while Brooks and Chait both frame Kipnis' experience as a failure to meet the broad liberal ideals of free speech and thought, there are those that are even more concerned about academic freedom.

"The most notable root cause of this current state of affairs is the continuing evolution of universities away from intellectual purposes," Big Think's Robert Montenegro wrote in his analysis.

"Colleges are being run more like corporations than bastions of higher learning," Montenegro wrote. "Getting a diploma is more important than gaining knowledge. Students are treated more like customers than as pupils. This then means professors are being treated less like academic sages and more like the help. And that's going to students' heads."

Another trend that some argue shows a shift in campus culture away from academic freedom is recent protests against controversial public figures that have been chosen to speak at universities, and the gaining prominence of "trigger warnings" in college textbooks.

"But," Chait wrote in his piece on the rise of p.c. culture, "it would be a mistake to categorize todays p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon."

Kipnis' accusers have found few, if any, defenders on either the left or the right. After the initial backlash to Kipnis's first essay in CHE, The Nation's Michelle Goldberg argued that "Kipnis could hardly have invented a response that so neatly proved her argument." Another left-leaning website known for its constant defense of rape victims, Jezebel, calls the case "a stunning example of feminism devouring itself."

Meanwhile, conservatives see it as proof that the growing acceptance of liberal ideology may already be experiencing growing pains too unpleasant for the average American.

"The bottom line is that the current wave of intolerance is too self-righteous, too joyless and too malicious to survive in an otherwise open society," The National Review's David French wrote Monday. "But as the wave breaks, its exacting a dreadful cultural and professional toll stifling debate, ending careers and eroding the intellectual foundations of liberty."

But the story isn't over yet. In his piece for Big Think, Montenegro argues that there's a lot riding on how Kipnis' case is received by the public and university administrators.

"There is no normal after this. The political correctness sharks will almost certainly smell blood in the water," he wrote. "The push will continue to declaw higher education to prevent it from ever offending the tender sensibilities of full-grown adults."
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