The White Knights of the First Amendment

In June 2016, faculty defenders of the First Amendment faced off against University of Oregon administrators and staff in a symposium originally intended to educate people about the work of the campus’ Bias Response Team. At places like Emory University, University of Oregon, University of California, Santa Barbara and over 100 additional institutions, Bias Response Teams were created to “provide targets of bias a safe space to have their voices heard, to promote civility and respect, to effect change around these important issues in a quick and effective manner and to ensure a comprehensive response to bias incidents.” But according to First Amendment advocates, when the BRT contacted faculty members to talk about complaints that had been made to the BRT concerning—to take one example, derision about the use of gender-neutral pronouns—this created a climate that undermined their freedom of speech. There was little room for discussion at this symposium, recorded for the purpose of podcasting, but a great deal of conversation about the dangers of “safe spaces,” “politically correct thought police” and the “chilling” effects of institutional responses to bias.

What happened on the University of Oregon campus was not an isolated incident, but part of a string of similar incidents that have unfolded over the past two years—in which mostly white, cis men have transformed criticism of their speech and the ideas they propagate from women, queer people and people of color into challenges to their freedom.

As Alice Marwick and Ross Miller point out in an article about online harassment, hateful, defaming or harassing speech is protected by the First Amendment—which has made it extraordinarily difficult for women, people of color and queer people to protect themselves from online harassment. In attacks on campus BRTs and so-called “social justice warriors” (SJWs), conservative students on college campuses are now extending Men’s Rights Activists’ use of the First Amendment to protect their ability to harass and discriminate against marginalized folks.

We asked Ms. if we could publish this article using a pseudonym because of our concern that we will be harassed by Men’s Rights Activists and those who sympathize with them. Our desire for anonymity is at once a symptom of the climate we go on to describe and a by-product of an emphasis on free speech that is proving to be a screen for unethical and vicious on- and offline harassment. These attacks are part of a longer tradition of conservative attacks on campus activists aimed at ridiculing and undermining critiques of sexist, racist and homophobic utterances and practices under the guise of protecting freedom of speech.

Political Correctness, GamerGate and Defenders of the First Amendment

The current attack on campus social justice activists has its roots in the early 1990s, when “political correctness” entered popular culture. The term, originally used on the sectarian left, was revived in 1991 by conservative Allen Bloom in his The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom followed the longstanding anti-communist tradition of suggesting that liberals were policing speech on college campuses. In the subsequent series of articles written by conservative journalists, the 1990s moral panic about political correctness re-animated an older anti-communist trope that saw threats to systems of power from which they had long benefited in struggles for civil rights, economic equality and gender equity. Transforming victimizers (those espousing racist or sexist beliefs that understood people of color and women as being genetically inferior to White men, as in The Bell Curve), critics of political correctness represented themselves as champions of free speech and First Amendment Rights. They were, they claimed, being silenced by left wing criticism when, in fact, they were intent on silencing their critics.

In the summer of 2014, the inheritors of this political legacy once again rallied around the belief that they were the beleaguered defenders of free and open speech and journalistic ethics during a series of incidents that became known as GamerGate. The Men’s Rights Activists campaigns mobilized during GamerGate began in the wake of the suicide and mass shootings perpetrated by Elliott Rodgers in Isla Vista, California in May 2014, notably online protests against the hashtag #yesallwomen.

Online attacks against women gained momentum later that summer, with an aggressive online attack on independent game developer Zoë Quinn. Quinn released the interactive fiction game Depression Quest in February 2013. The game was intended to draw attention to the challenges of living with this illness, but it also drew the ire of male gamers who made it their business to police what counted as a legitimate or “serious” games. When Quinn’s game received positive reviews, online protectors of the integrity of games understood to be serious (e.g. manly) began to grumble and then take shots at Quinn. Motivated by the belief that praise for Quinn’s game resulted not from the merits of her design, but because of Quinn’s relationships with journalists writing about games, the situation erupted in August 2014, when Eron Gjoni, Quinn’s former boyfriend, published an inchoate, meandering post. In it, Gjoni claimed that a favorable review of Depression Quest on the gaming blog Kotaku resulted from Quinn’s presumably sexual relationship with the reviewer.

While this had all the appearance of a tempest in a teapot—a sullen and jealous response to an ex’s success, typical of abusive relationships in which abusers seek to undermine any successes the object of their violent attentions may enjoy—the incident quickly galvanized Men’s Rights Activists, already active in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting. Quinn was subjected to myriad acts of online harassment. She received death threats and was doxxed (e.g. private and identifying information about her was published on the Internet). People who dared to speak up for her and who linked the treatment of Quinn to hostile climates in the gaming and tech industry, like Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Felicia Day and Ellen Pao, were subjected to similar forms of harassment. When Zoë Quinn criticized Gjoni, he responded with an attack on SWJs, a group of people described as the direct descendants of the political correctness crowd. Men’s Rights Activists who rallied to support Quinn’s boyfriend used the First Amendment to claim they were ones harmed by GamerGate, despite the very real consequences faced by Quinn and others, including doxxing, online harassment and death threats. Men’s Rights Activists were just exercising their right to free speech, defending themselves against “misandry,” they argued in their defense, apparently unaware of how death threats might make women think more than twice about speaking their minds.

Most significantly for our purposes, GamerGate allowed college dropout and self-identified “faggot” Milo Yiannopoulos to rise to internet fame through the ensuing publicity. Yiannopoulos published “leaked” documents that purported to prove the very forms of corruption within gaming journalism of which Gjoni had accused Kotaku. Yiannopoulos proved an effective poster child for people whose real intent was to promote and defend online harassment. These GamerGate activities led to Yiannopoulos’ gig as the tech editor for Breitbart News in October 2015. Around the same time, Yiannopoulos began to engage in what New York Magazine describes as the “campus-outrage outrage cycle.” In this, Yiannopolous appeared on college campuses, making inflammatory and provocative statements and serving as “free speech bait” to provoke teachers and students into protests. The protests were then picked up by conservative journalists and activists, used to prove that social justice warriors were enemies of free speech and to justify attacks on targeted protestors.

Publicity and Raising the First Amendment Banner

Yiannopoulos’ misogyny has been well-documented. His attacks on feminism have consistently flown under the banner of political correctness and alleged feminist attacks on free speech, as his campus tours have illustrated. In 2015, at the University of Manchester, he debated the topic, “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” In early 2016, he went on his self-titled “The Dangerous Faggot” tour, with appearances at Rutgers in February—where he taunted protesters by saying, “you’re idiots if you believe women get paid less than men, or if you believe rape culture exists.” In March, he continued at the University of Pittsburgh, claiming that feminism drew women into lesbianism because they “have a much more malleable sexuality than men do.” Feminists were “man-haters,” he told the crowd, adding that “the Black Lives Matter movement is an act of ‘black supremacy.’” These appearances were publicity stunts intended to provoke feminists, anti-racists, LGBTQ+ activists and their allies into protests that to be used as fodder for the campus-outrage outrage cycle.

Yiannopoulos’ tour, and conservative news coverage of it, uses the First Amendment as a rallying cry for harassment and hate speech. Without the First Amendment as a shiny banner excusing anything that Yiannopoulos or MRAs say about people supporting social justice campaigns on college campuses, their cause appears as nothing more than what it is: aggressive sexism, racism and homophobia. But under the banner of protecting free speech and the First Amendment, these campaigns serve as justification for silencing those who hold opposing viewpoints.

This is more than a rhetorical game. The repressive, silencing consequences of campaigns by people like Yiannopoulos, whose stated goal is “to go through life as offensively as possible,” have been evident in several cases that have unfolded over the past year. In May 2016, conservative news outlets The Daily Caller and Breitbart News reported the resignation of a professor at DePaul with headlines “DePaul Professor Offended By Milo Announces Resignation, Calls Free Speech Delusional” and “DePaul Sociology Professor Angrily Resigns Over Milo Visit”. The professor in question was Dr. Shu-Ju Ada Cheng, an associate professor of sociology who in fact had submitted her resignation in December 2015, prior to Yiannopoulos’ visit.

While Dr. Cheng explained her resignation as a response to DePaul’s failure to address racism in higher education, news stories cited Yiannopoulos’ visit as the cause. This marked the intensification of the “campus-outrage outrage cycle.” Dr. Cheng’s criticism of institutional racism was conflated with Yiannopolous’ visit and she was subsequently demonized in online publications as a villainous enemy in the battle of free speech versus social justice warriors. Although advocates of Yiannopoulos claimed that student protests at DePaul and Dr. Cheng’s letter constituted a threat and “chilling effect” on their free speech, it was Dr. Cheng and students at DePaul who faced significant online harassment in the shape of racist phone calls and death threats.

Consequences of the “Chilling Effect”

While Yiannopoulos has been appearing as the spokesperson for a new movement for free speech, other events over the last year demonstrate how free speech is increasingly being invoked to turn victims into victimizers in the name of journalistic ethics. In November 2015, racial tensions at the University of Missouri culminated in a series of protests, including a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler and a threatened boycott by the University’s football team. During one particularly volatile protest, Dr. Melissa Click was filmed attempting to protect student protesters from reporters. Conservative news outlets quickly reacted to the video, filmed by Mark Schierbecker, focusing on Dr. Click’s improbable and impetuous call for “some muscle.” The video quickly went viral: here was an open attack on free speech by an actual SWJ, a feminist scholar who had written about Twilight, a text reviled by online misogynists. Dr. Click’s defense of student protesters—who had no reason to embrace conservative journalists who often espoused White supremacist views—was transformed into an attack on all journalists and the figure of the diminutive mother of three calling for “some muscle” became the symbol for SWJ’s real goals: to silence all critics.

The onslaught of media attention and the backlash on campus argued that Schierbecker was the true victim in this scenario. Schierbecker became a rallying point for an existing network of news outlets intent on framing social justice advocates as overly-sensitive defilers of the First Amendment. Schierbecker has gone on to promote himself as a defender of the First Amendment, referring to himself as a “free-speech activist” while contributing to publications with a history of attacking the speech of social justice advocates. In a piece for Breitbart News, Yiannopoulos joined in the fray, calling Dr. Click the “media professor who hates journalists” and helping to contribute to the image of Schierbecker as a victim of social justice warriors intent on destroying the freedom of the press.

In February 2016, Dr. Click was fired from the University of Missouri after outrage in the conservative press, the mobilization of free speech defenders on UM’s campus and their allies in the conservative legislature. That same month, David French published an article in the National Review, identifying Bias Response Teams as enemies of free speech on college campuses. Despite BRT’s stated purpose of promoting civility, respect and understanding, in French’s estimation, Bias Response Teams were actually enemies of the First Amendment.

The attack on BRTs heated up as additional articles on Bias Response Teams swiftly began to appear in conservative publications. In late March 2016, at the University of Oregon, after several faculty members objected to derisive comments on the journalism school’s listserv concerning the Washington Post’s adoption of gender-neutral pronouns, a faculty member called the Bias Response Team for support. The meeting did not go well.

In the wake of additional criticism, several male journalism professors at the University of Oregon publicly began to cry First Amendment as a strategy for diverting attention from the original critiques. At a subsequent panel, a group of professors at the School of Journalism and Communication, including Professor Kyu Ho Youm and former Dean of the School, Tim Gleason, took up French’s concerns that the BRT was chilling free speech. Rather than contributing to dialogue, the Bias Response Team, they asserted, impeded it. With little awareness of the experiences of students facing backlash against growing vocal opposition to buildings named after documented racists and the designation of several campus bathroom as gender-neutral, tenured professors claimed they were the ones being threatened. At a panel discussing the BRT, both Gleason and Professor Tom Wheeler reported fearing the impact of anonymous reports on professors’ careers. Rallying around free speech allowed tenured male professors to claim they were the victims of the BRT, completely obfuscating original charges that tenured male professors were not being respectful in their behavior on the listserv and were, in fact, creating a climate that was hostile for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people alike. In an article published in June 2016, Professor Kyu Ho Youm dramatically compared the BRT’s visit to “the dispatching of the thought police” and spoke of a UO colleague who “endured a real-life chilling experience with the BRT.”

No one could, of course, point to such “real-life chilling experiences,” save for the obvious discomfort these professors expressed at having been criticized. In fact, there is far more evidence that the people attacked by free speech activists are the ones who are experiencing actual chilling effects. In the case of the Mizzou protests, Black student activists’ experiences of racism on campus, including death threats, were completely subsumed by the media feeding frenzy around Dr. Click. This media feeding frenzy, moreover, resulted in this untenured professor receiving numerous death and rape threats, including the following:

“I hope your mother dies of brain cancer.”

“I plan to belly-laugh when someone shanks you or sets you on fire in the next week.”

“Sport should be made of you, in which you are passed around a cell block for a week straight, then cut loose to be hunted down and killed. If hell exists, I want to be there to take part in your eternal agony. You do not deserve a marked grave.”

“I hope you’re gang-raped by some of the very animals with whom you’re so enamored.”

Conservatives’ discomfort with criticisms of their misogyny, racism and homophobia pales in comparison to the experiences of Dr. Click and other social justice activists in campaigns initiated and intensified by people who, without irony, describe themselves as defenders of free speech. The pattern is evident: First Amendment and free speech activists troll college campuses using high visibility social justice issues like transgender bathrooms, Black Lives Matter and gun reform—even going so far as to promote Yiannopoulos along with gun giveaways at campus events—to draw out potential targets. Although they claim to be protectors of fragile First Amendment rights, their bullying behaviors are evident in the online attacks that follow from the targeting of social justice warriors. In contrast to those claiming to feel a “chilling effect” as a result of educational conversations in an educational institution, people like Dr. Click, Dr. Cheng and supporters of the BRT face a chilling effect of a large-scale network unafraid to send hate mail, death threats and other insinuations of violent retaliation.

Who Is Protected by Defending Free Speech?

Not coincidentally, the ramping up of attacks on campus activists coincides with Donald Trump’s campaign for U.S. president, a campaign full of the kind of rhetoric used by Men’s Rights Activists. Trump , who Yiannopoulos refers to as “Daddy”, has long been an opponent of what he describes as political correctness, which as his campaign unfolds has meant attacks on women, Muslims, immigrants, Mexican-Americans, queer people, racial justice activists and veterans. Arguments made by campus First Amendment activists line up very evenly with Trump’s platform and his devil-may-care attitude toward the effects of his own speech acts.

Domestic violence activists have long understood that the most dangerous moment for people—mainly women—in abusive relationships is when they walk out the door and turn their backs on abusive relationships. In these bitter attacks on social justice, we may well be witnessing the painful uncoupling of social justice activists from forms of journalism that have never served them well.

We have every reason to believe that these attacks will only intensify as faculty, students and staff head back to campuses this fall. We can see already see evidence of this in the formation of a Task Force on the BRT at the University of Oregon and a letter sent to incoming freshman at the University of Chicago stating the university does not condone the creation of “safe spaces.”

We want to offer guidance for those encountering defenders of free speech or grappling with accusations that “social justice warriors” are bullies seeking to quell speech. To begin with, it is vital to recognize that the incidents we’ve discussed, along with many others, are not disparate or isolated incidents. The backlash against Dr. Click, Dr. Cheng, Ms. Quinn and the BRT are part of a wave of organized political activity gathering under the banner of free speech. Because the First Amendment can only be defended in relation to a series of conjured threats to it, free speech “activists” are seeking publicity and public targets as the focus for their crusades. We must not feed the trolls in the hope that if you leave them in the cave, they will eventually eat themselves.

As legal scholars like Alice Marwick, Russ Miller and Sky Croeser have argued, it is also vital to recognize that the First Amendment is not the Word of God. It has its limits and historically has not been friendly to those who would challenge those in power. When free speech is called upon as a rallying cry, we must think of whose speech is being promoted and defended. In GamerGate, the “campus-outrage outrage cycle” and claims to journalistic ethics, free speech is summoned in defense of online harassment and threats. Marwick and Miller contend that hateful, defaming or harassing speech is protected by the First Amendment—yet the effect of such speech repeatedly target particular groups.

“Research suggests that those most likely to be the victims of hateful, online speech are women, sexual minorities, and people of color,” the authors wrote. “In other words, harassment breaks down along traditional lines of power.” In keeping with Marwick and Miller’s argument, attacks against individuals or groups of people perceived to be challenging those in positions of power like Dr. Cheng, Dr. Click and Bias Response Teams function to maintain power structures in higher education that have long allowed those in power to speak without consequences.

Higher education has an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to promote educational opportunities that enhance understanding and inclusion—which is precisely why academics and student activists are being targeted by these campaigns. Better than anyone else, we know that speech has consequences. We know that criticism, grounded in thoughtful consideration and research, plays a vital role in democracy and helps us to refine and advance as a society.

Social justice activists understand, perhaps better than anyone else, how difficult it can be to hear criticism and to learn from it. We are committed to having those conversations on our campuses, but the current defense of the First Amendment is not a defense of open conversation and free speech—it is a defense of harassment and a defense of those who wish to wield inflammatory rhetoric elevating white supremacy, misogyny and homophobia without consequence or criticism.

In the interests of promoting dialogue in which all people are full participants—regardless of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation or citizenship status—we need to be vigilant and cautious in the dangerous months ahead.