New York Times on Speech Codes and "Indoctrinate U":

Today's NY Times has an article sort of commenting on Evan Coyne Maloney's documentary Indoctrinate U.

Greg Lukianoff at FIRE has a nice analysis of some problems with the article here, explaining the facts of the Vassar situation that is the centerpiece of the article.

What struck me about the article, however, was the utter confusion by the reporter (Joseph Berger) about the central point of the article--the distinction between controversial ideas on one hand and abusive or derogatory language on the other.

Greg's post summarizes the Vassar situation as follows:

Back in 2005, The Imperialist, a publication of Vassar’s Moderate, Independent and Conservative Alliance (MICA), published an opinion piece criticizing what the anonymous author perceived as the balkanization of campus along the lines of race and sexual orientation. The article read:

How is diversity achieved when those students are voluntarily confining themselves to ghettos of the ALANA [African, Latino, Asian and Native American] Center and Blegen House [“A lesbian and gay center for the study of social change”]? I find the objective of diversity to be utterly meritless, suggesting that our colleges should become some zoological preserve in some paternalistic attempt [to] benefit our ‘non diverse’ students….

While it’s understandable that students might be upset by this article, one could easily argue that the central point expressed here—that students should not be encouraged to divide into race- and orientation-based enclaves—is in fact anti-racist and egalitarian. However, Berger presumed throughout my interview that the article was simply hurtful and of little redeeming value.

Berger's article characterizes the situation thusly:

The Imperialist, a publication of the school’s Moderate, Independent and Conservative Student Alliance, published a contributor’s article in 2005 that criticized social centers for minority and gay students. The article called such centers “ghettos” and said they turned Vassar into a “zoological preserve.”

Students complained that the language was insulting and called for banning The Imperialist. For weeks, the issue was debated by the student association, which finances the publication. Ultimately, the group withheld its money for one year and publication was suspended.

Accept for the sake of argument that the treatment of the newspaper should turn on whether the problem here was the "offensive language" that could be subject to punishment ("ghettos" and "zoological preserve") rather than the controversial ideas that should not (the college should not encourage students to separate themselves by race). The distinction seems somewhat tenuous to me in the first place, but especially so here as the precise words in question were being used for a rhetorical point and not with an intention to insult or harrass fellow students. But let's set that aside and accept the premise that offensive languge can be punished (as opposed to offensive ideas) and that in fact the language used here was reasonably offensive. In fact, it does appear that there were some other egregious facts that were omitted from the Times article and for which the newspaper actually apologized, so I am not intending to defend the content of the publication here.

If this distinction between language and ideas is the premise, however, then Berger's argument quickly descends into confusion. Consider the quote he uses that he believes illustrates the distinction:

Students like Victor Monterrosa, a son of Salvadoran immigrants who recently graduated, still thinks that the question of whether students should be clustered by race or sexual orientation does not deserve a forum since Vassar “is supposed to protect diversity” and “these discussions ended up making us more polarized.”

“There are students who feel comfortable putting us on the back burner who ended up fighting for free speech on campus,” he said.

Now it is quite clear from this quote that Mr. Monterrosa's objection is to the content of the article, not its language--according to Berger, Mr. Monterrossa said that the question of whether students should be clusterd "doesn not deserve a forum." It may be that Berger has some other quotes that would have actually illustrated his point that this was about the language, not the ideas. But that he chose this particular quote and believes that it illustrates his point suggests to me that he simply doesn't understand the distinction that he is trying to establish.

The same confusion arises a few paragraphs later:

Still, Vassar deserves credit because, as students explained, the dispute was not focused on whether The Imperialist could argue that a center exclusively for minority students fragmented the community; it was over whether the language used to express the idea was offensive.

The wider society, after all, has not resolved the issue of abusive language. Limits are evident in hate crime laws, the firing of Don Imus and this week’s Supreme Court ruling against a high school student who displayed a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner.

Again we see Berger's confusion. The objection to Imus was actually his use of derogatory language and which was used simply to insult and ridicule. But the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case was premised on the idea that the message was inappropriate for school, not that the language was offensive.

Again, this whole discussion is predicated on taking as given Berger's distinction between abusive language on one hand and "offensive" ideas on the other. But if that is a disntinction that is supposed to have analytical force, it is important to understand what exactly it means.

By the way I saw an earlier edition of the movie "Indoctrinate U" and found it informative, illuinating, and terrifically enjoyable. Berger's more general critique of the movie is completely silly. It is a good movie and Maloney lets the students and faculty involved in these incidents simply tell their story. Then he runs some amusing Michael Moore-style ambushes on hapless college administrators.

I understand that the production company is trying to get it into wider circulation and I certainly recommend seeing it if it comes to your town. It is really well done and there is really some pretty outrageous stuff portrayed in the movie and some of the quotes from some of the participants are simply hilarious.

You may recall that Evan did the powerful "Crystal Morning" film on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 that I mentioned last fall.

Update:

You will note that in the original post I observed that the Times article "sort of" comments on Indoctrinate U. The reason is because even though it starts off talking about the movie, the Vassar story isn't actually in the movie as Evan Coyne Maloney explains here. He also explains what is in the film and addresses the larger issue as to why the rest of us should be more concerned about free speech on campus than Berger is (a point that Greg Lukianoff emphasizes as well in his post).

Update:

Yee-ouch my original post omitted an extremely important "not" which I have corrected. The sentence now reads (as I originally intended it to): "In fact, it does appear that there were some other egregious facts that were omitted from the Times article and for which the newspaper actually apologized, so I am not intending to defend the content of the publication here." Sorry for any confusion.