When Lightning Strikes An Utter Tool

Harry Vincent is a 19-year-old college student and kind of a dick. That's banal. Lots of 19-year-olds are dicks, and many of them are college students. Harry Vincent is notable because he has been struck by proverbial lightning — he offended someone online, and that person had the inclination and free time to complain about him to his university, and his university had the shitty values and utter lack of proportion or good sense to punish him for it. That's an unlikely chain of events. But do we really want it to be more likely?

Harry Vincent goes to Texas Christian University. In his spare time, he likes to say "beaners" and imagine people he doesn't like being "exiled" to the Sahara Desert, which he may or may not think is a country.

ThatsNotWhatAnApostropheIsForDipshit

DeepThoughts

HurrHurrrImaPatriot

That's Harry — indifferently literate, choadish, kinda racist, and not particularly creative or good at any of it. The average 13-year-old on Reddit would school his sorry ass on being notably offensive in a hot second. Harry — who goes by @classypatriot, and probably not ironically — is just plain dull.

The internet is oozing with Harrys. But this one caught the attention of a some no-rocket-scientist-either woman in Maryland who encouraged her readers to complain to TCU about him. Harry wasn't speaking on behalf of TCU, or using their Twitter account, or talking to or about TCU students, and wasn't a TCU public relations official or anything. This person "Kelsey" apparently just felt that assholes shouldn't go to college. Ridiculous. Who would run our hedge funds?

Normally this wouldn't be a problem. If sensible people had received Kelsey's complaints of private-time toolbaggery by Harry, they would have shaken their heads and gone back to whatever it is that the hideously swollen academic-administrative class does all day. But apparently TCU lacks sensible people, because TCU suspended Harry Vincent and restricted him from dorms and campus activities. The FIRE has the story, and wrote TCU a stern letter. TCU is a private entity and not bound by the First Amendment — but, as FIRE points out, they claim to celebrate free speech, and ought not if they're going to act like this.

Does TCU, a private entity, have the right to suspend Harry without anything resembling due process for engaging in patently protected speech? Yep. Is its decision to do so worthy of our respect? No. It's ridiculous. First of all, it's arbitrary. I guaranfreakingtee you that a sizable percentage of TCU's student body routinely acts like assholes on the internet. Harry's being singled out because a petty and disturbed person ran across him — he's been struck by lightning. Second, it's unsustainable. Even the army of administrators that colleges support these days can't possibly keep up with policing and regulating the private online speech of students. It's a waste of money to try. Third, this runs contrary to what a college ought to be. TCU isn't some American madrassa openly advocating for uniform thought, like a Bob Jones or a Liberty. If you go to one of those places, you know what you're getting into. No, TCU is nominally a respected academic institution devoted to free inquiry. Suspending people for political expression, however uncreatively dickish, is thoroughly un-academic.

The appropriate American remedy for Harry Vincent being a bigoted twerp is (1) absent fatal alcohol poisoning, him growing up, and (2) more speech imposing social consequences. I suppose being suspended from a private institution is a form of social consequence, but it's a thoroughly disproportionate and disreputable one. Imposing official school punishments on the Harry Vincents of this world suggests that the TCUs of this world can't counter his oafish speech — that all the professors and administrators and earnest students cannot make a convincing counter-argument to some slackjawed dipshit saying "beaner." Doesn't inspire much confidence in the educational system, does it?

TCU deserves scorn for this. They deserve an object lesson as well. If TCU thinks that it ought to regulate its students' private speech when the fragile pussywillows of the internet object to it, why not take TCU at its word and help it along? I'm sure it will be easy to identify TCU students on social media and comment sections and blogs. Why not examine what they say, and write to the administration of TCU if it irks anyone? I'm not just talking about Harry Vincent's sophomoric twaddle. For every TCU student who says #blacklivesmatter, someone ought to write TCU protesting that #alllivesmatter, FOR FEELS. For every student who says something unflattering about Israel there ought to be an angry email. For every off-color joke, there should be a statement about the over-sexualization of society. For every student who makes a hurtful remark about political groups, TCU's administrators ought to get a missive from a Concerned Person. Maybe it's ridiculous to take personal offense at those things, you might say. Well, you might think so. But TCU is clearly interested in how random internet citizens feel about their students and their words. How can we not help them along? You can find email addresses here. Be polite.

Postscript: if you are inclined to write a comment complaining that I ought to be defending free speech without criticizing the speech or the speaker, kindly snort my taint, fool.

Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords: Bergen Community College Freaks Out Over "Game of Thrones" T-Shirt

Tragedy is inevitable. Our reaction to tragedy is not. We cannot govern every risk, but we must govern our reactions to risks. Here's the question we must ask ourselves: when awful things happen in the world, will we abandon reason and accept any measure urged by officials — petty and great — who invoke those awful things as justifications for action? Or will we think critically and demand that our leaders do so as well? Will we subject cries of "crime" and "drugs" and "terrorism" and "school shootings" to scrutiny? Will we be convinced to turn on each other in an irrational frenzy of suspicion, "for the children?"

If we don't maintain our critical thinking, we wind up with a nation run more and more like Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where we may be questioned and sent for reeducation for posting a picture of our daughter in a popular t-shirt on Google+.

Naturally the FIRE has the story, sourced from Inside Higher Education.

Francis Schmidt is a popular professor of design and animation at Bergen. Schmidt posted to Google+ a cute picture of his young daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt in a yoga pose next to a cat. The t-shirt was this one, bearing the phrase "I will take what is mine with fire and blood," a quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels (which has sold tens of millions of copies) turned into a hot TV series on HBO (with close to 15 million viewers per episode.) Googling the phrase will instantly provide a context to anyone unfamiliar with the series.

So: a professor posts a cute picture of his kid in a t-shirt with a saying from a much-talked-about tv show. In the America we'd like to believe in, nothing happens. But in the America we've allowed to creep up on us, this happens:

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an email, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening email.”

Although it was winter break, Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via email later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

So. That happened.

Pressed for an explanation of this lunacy, Bergen Community College Kaye Walter retreated into the first refuge of a modern authoritarianism, "think of the children":

Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).

This — this — is the core demand of the modern Fear State. Tell us what to fear, leaders, for the night is dark and full of terrors. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what to think, and how to assess risks. Tell us "if you see something, say something" so we may feel duty-bound to vent our fears and insecurities about our fellow citizens rather than exercising judgment or compassion or proportion. Assure us that you must exercise your growing powers for our own safety, to ward off the terrible things we worry about.

Is Bergen some sort of unlikely citadel of irrationality? At first glance it may seem so. After all no well person would interpret the t-shirt as a threat and report it. That takes irrationality or dysfunction. No minimally competent or intelligent or honest school administrator would pursue such a report upon receiving it; rather, anyone exercising anything like rational discretion would Google the thing and immediately identify it as a mundane artifact of popular culture. No honest or near-normal intellect would say, as Jim Miller did, that the "fire" in the slogan might refer to an AK-47, a profoundly idiotic statement that resembles arguing that "May the Force Be With You" is a threat of force. Nobody with self-respect or minimal ability would claim that this professor's treatment was somehow justified by school shootings.

But Bergen isn't an anomaly. It's not a collection of dullards and subnormals — though Jim Miller and Kaye Walker could lead to think that it is. Bergen is the emerging norm. Bergen represents what we, the people, have been convinced to accept. Bergen is unremarkable in a world where we've accepted "if you see something, say something" as an excuse to emote like toddlers, and where we're lectured that we should be thankful that our neighbors are so eager to inform on us. Bergen is mundane in a world where we put kids in jail to be brutalized over obvious bad jokes on social media. Bergen exists in a world where officials use concepts like "cyberbullying" to police and retaliate against satire and criticism. Bergen exists in a world where we have allowed fears — fear of terrorism, fear of drugs, fear of crime, fear for our children — to become so powerful that merely invoking them is a key that unlocks any right. Bergen exists in a country where our leaders realize how powerful those fears are, and therefore relentlessly stretch them further and further, so we get things like the already-Orwellian Department of Homeland Security policing DVD piracy.

Certainly the Miller-Walter mindset is not unique in American academia. We've seen a professor's historical allusion cynically repackaged as a threat. We've seen a community college invoke 9/11 and Virginia Tech and Columbine to ban protest signs. In pop-culture debacle much like this one, we've seen a college tear down a "Firefly" poster as a threat. We've seen satire and criticism punished as "actionable harassment" or ""intimidation."

As a nation, we all need to decide whether we will surrender our critical thinking in response to buzzwords like "terrorism" and "drugs" and "crime" and "school shootings." On a local level, we must decide whether we will put up with such idiocy from our educational institutions. So tell me, students and teachers and alumni of Bergen Community College. Are you going to put up with that? Because institutions that act like this are not helping young people to be productive and independent adults. They are teaching fear, ignorance, and subservience.

If you feel strongly about it, you could tell Bergen Community College on its Twitter Account or Facebook page.

Update: Bergen made a statement doubling down:

"The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern."

There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just "investigate" — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, "complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN." Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?

FROM THE DESK OF THE PRESIDENT: FINE, ASSHOLES, GET DECAPITATED, SEE IF I CARE.

MEMORANDUM

TO: SINCLAIR COMMUNITY COLLEGE FACULTY, STAFF, AND SECURITY OFFICERS

FROM: PRESIDENT STEVEN L. JOHNSON

RE: I WASH MY HANDS OF THIS, AND MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON YOUR SOULS

Dear Sinclair Community:

I have done all I can. But I am only one man.

Last year I alerted you to to the clear and present danger created by signs, posters, fliers, and other weaponized expression wielded by fanatics intent on inflicting idea-crimes on our community. I have struggled to protect Sinclair's right to ban signs and posters and other dangerous items that menace the physical and emotional and psycho-sexual security of our students and that threaten to continue the bloody heritage of 9/11, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and that time someone tried to organize a Young Republicans Club.

I come today to say I have failed you. But your blood will not be on my hands. I did what I could.

As you can see from the crowing of hate groups like the Thomas More Society and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Sinclair has been forced into a settlement of a lawsuit brought by angry student dissidents. We have been backed into amending our Code of Conduct and Campus Access Policy, both of which had been bravely drafted by some of the finest and most progressive minds of the Theater and Sociology Departments. We have no choice but to yield. We are up against the retrograde policies imposed upon us by the so-called First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a document drafted by privileged landowners without any diversity committee input or Faculty Senate debate whatsoever.

So: have your bloody victory, "free speech advocates." Be it on your heads, not on mine, when "protestors" start swinging signs like Viking battleaxes and reaping innocent freshpersons like Autumn wheat.

I take comfort in this: though I have failed in defending an official policy limiting expression that might be hurtful to students, I have nurtured in their hearts the seed of an idea — that they have a right not to have their feelings hurt or offended. I see that hopeful shoot taking root and growing across the country. Those children are surely our future.

Greg Lukianoff's Talk On "Unlearning Liberty"

Last night I attended Greg Lukianoff's talk at the LA Press Club about his book "Unlearning Liberty," which I reviewed here. I got to meet Virginia Postrel, which pleased me, and Adam Steinbaugh, who located me by tweeting words to the effect of "are you that schlubby guy over there staring at his iPad?" I was, in fact.

Greg's a good raconteur in addition to a good writer, and his talk was enjoyable. He emphasized a number of important points made at length in the book: that apathy about free expression amongst students and faculty is terrifying; that modern university censorship is often less about ideology and more often about a self-interested hostility amongst administrators against being criticized or made to look bad; that the rapid growth of university administration (as opposed to faculty) is inevitably leading to this attitude towards speech; and in general that this is no way to run a railroad — or, as Greg puts it, "this is not a formula for a free people."

The book's terrifying and entertaining and great. I highly recommend it. And, as Greg says last night, The FIRE is a two-million-dollar organization standing up to a half-trillion-dollar increasingly administrator-driven higher education industry; it needs and deserves your help. Please consider giving it.

"Unlearning Liberty": An Important But Frightening Tale of How We're Being Taught to Accept Censorship

Greg Lukianoff's new book "Unlearning Liberty" is not a feel-good opus. In fact, it ought to leave us feeling very concerned about the attitudes being taught in universities across America. Why? Greg offers a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "the philosophy of the classroom today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow." Greg presents a disturbingly persuasive case that the philosophy of the American classroom today is intolerant of dissent and accepting of all sorts of censorship.

Greg's the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the royalties from Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate will support FIRE. That's a worthy cause, and Greg has written a very worthy (if disturbing) book.

In Unlearning Liberty, Greg reviews the different occasions and excuses for censorship in modern American universities, marshaling a bewildering array of case studies. Some were familiar to me: the ludicrous reaction to posters at University of Wisconsin-Stout, the legal threats to critics of the administration of Peace College, and the entirely repellent tale of Indiana University punishing a student worker for reading a book about struggles against the Klan in front of coworkers. Many others were new to me — and I follow FIRE fairly closely. Greg has a talent for describing instances of censorship in a way to outrage me anew even if I have heard of them before. (For instance, I defy anyone to read about the University of Delaware's frankly Stalinist reeducation program for frosh without feeling disgust and contempt; Greg offers new details that led me to put the book down and go take a walk for a while.)

But this is not merely a compilation of cases. Greg traces the history of campus censorship after the "political correctness" disputes of the 1990s, and weaves the incidents of censorship together to explain how different vaguely defined ideas (like "harassment" and "disruption" and "civility") are used in an unprincipled manner as trump cards to shut people up. Moreover, Greg rather convincingly illustrates how university censorship impacts the attitudes and tolerances of students, and explains why we should fear that students taught to submit to censorship and due process violations will not be reliable supporters of free expression or due process as voting adults.

Moreover, if you're one of those people who think that FIRE — or other critics of speech codes — have a conservative bias, this book should quell your suspicions. Greg articulates why his own left-of-center beliefs lead him to support free expression and criticize campus censorship. Greg documents censorship of both "liberal" and "conservative" expression, but also demonstrates that censorship is about official power, not about ideology — as cases like the Hayden Barnes matter at Valdosta State University demonstrate. Many of the incidents described in the book are not about administrators censoring speech because they don't agree with its politics; they are about administrators censoring speech because they feel entitled to be free of criticism or dissent.

Though Greg paints a grim picture, the book offers hope. Time and time again he demonstrates how a letter from FIRE and a public outcry can lead universities to reconsider censorious actions. Shame may accomplish what lack of principle could not. We're all the agents of that shame.

I highly recommend "Unlearning Liberty." Even as someone who follows FIRE and free speech issues quite closely, I learned many new things from it and left it with an increased appreciation of freedom of expression and dedication to the cause. Give it a try.

Also, if you're a neighbor, come to hear Greg speak about the book and about his work at FIRE at the Los Angeles Press Club on November 29th. I hope to see some of you there. No crazy stalkers please.

Eternal Vigilance Is The Price of Tenure

MEMORANDUM

TO: SINCLAIR COMMUNITY COLLEGE FACULTY, STAFF, AND SECURITY OFFICERS

FROM: PRESIDENT STEVEN L. JOHNSON

RE: SCC POLICY AGAINST AGITATION AND USE OF WEAPONS ON CAMPUS

Dear Sinclair Community College team,

No doubt you have heard that Sinclair Community College is under assault by an extremist outside agitation group known as FIRE. The very name of this organization suggests — and inflicts — lawlessness and violence.

[Read more…]

The FIRE's Greg Lukianoff On Campus Censorship And Its Relation To American Discourse

This morning I had the great pleasure of having breakfast with Greg Lukianoff, President of the FIRE.

Anyone who has read Popehat for a while knows that I'm a huge FIRE fanboy. They fight for students' free expression at both public and private colleges. Moreover, they help educate students about freedom of expression and counteract the regrettably prevailing message that subjective offense or administrative convenience are legally or socially acceptable grounds for censorship.

Breakfast with Greg was as fun as a free-ranging talk with a fellow free-speech advocate and sci-fi aficionado could be. Greg gave me a preview of some of the themes and ideas from his upcoming book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, coming out in October. It's a pre-order and first-day-read for me. Based on my talk with Greg today, I'm looking forward to reading Greg's thoughts about the various avenues of campus censorship (both those based on subjective offense and, as in the recent and ridiculous UW-Stout case, based on pretense of danger), and how campus censorship and defective discourse is repeated and mirrored in the culture.

Greg is also the only First Amendment lawyer I've met who truly appreciates what I mean when I talk about giving the Kobiashi Maru speech to my associates, and doesn't look at me with judging rolley-eyes about it.

Check out Greg's book. Moreover, if any Southern Californians are interested in helping with a fundraiser for FIRE this October, let me know.

All We Are Asking Is That You Give Peace A Chance. Also, Shut Up Or Else.

Coeducational versus single-sex education is controversial. College administration is controversial, in an extremely tedious and petty way. The economics of running a college is more controversial the more you know about it.

Americans are a contentious people. We like to argue about controversial things.

Many of us see this as a good thing. We see it as part of our cultural heritage, our hard-earned exceptionalism, our competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, too many of us — even those of us in industries ostensibly devoted to open inquiry, like higher education — see it as a bug, not a feature. Too many of us react to criticism through abuse — actual or threatened — of America's deeply flawed legal system.

It is the job of everyone who loves freedom of expression to identify these people, call them out, and condemn and ridicule them.

Let's start today with Peace College of North Carolina and their lawyer, Catharine Biggs Arrowood of the firm Parker Poe.

[Read more…]

Remember Our School's Motto: "And Now, A Word From Our Sponsors"

Thirteen years ago, at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Georgia, senior Mike Cameron's smart mouth got him in trouble.

What did he do? Did he talk about drugs and God, like that "Bong Hits For Jesus" kid? Oh, no. Mike did something far worse than promoting demon weed or disrespecting Christ: he risked offending Greenbrier High's corporate sponsor. Mike wore a Pepsi shirt on Coke Day. It earned him a suspension.

"I know it sounds bad — `Child suspended for wearing Pepsi shirt on Coke Day,'" said Gloria Hamilton, principal of Greenbrier High School in Evans, about 130 miles east of Atlanta, the world headquarters of Coca-Cola. `'It really would have been acceptable if it had just been in- house, but we had the regional president here and people flew in from Atlanta to do us the honor of being resource speakers. These students knew we had guests." Friday's Coke in Education Day was part of Greenbrier's effort to win a $500 local contest run by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Augusta and a national contest with a $10,000 prize.

Gloria Hamilton — whom a person less couth than I might term a Coke whore — explained that Mike's behavior disrupted the school's mutually beneficial relationship with Coca-Cola, including its innovative curriculum:

In addition to the school picture, Greenbrier officials invited a Coke marketing executive to address economics students, had chemistry students analyze the sugar content of Coke and used a Coca-Cola cake recipe in home economics.

Later, students in math class learned how to calculate the amount of life insurance would be necessary to provide for their family if they died of diabetes.

Anyway, that was 13 years ago. We were barbarians. Surely modern educators have rejected the creeping attempts by various corporations to use schools as advertising platforms to captive audiences?

Well, maybe not. At Catawba Valley Community College, student Marc Bechtol was suspended and banned from campus for questioning the college's cozy relationship with a financial services company called Higher One. Marc didn't like how CVCC was hard-selling Higher One's cards and services, and didn't like how he became an immediate target of hard-sell marketing pitches for more products and services as soon as he signed up for one of the cards CVCC was pushing. He criticized the relationship on the school's Facebook page, engaging in some mild but obvious satire. It got him kicked out. Fortunately for him, FIRE is on the case, and CVCC president Garrett D. Hinshaw is looking at the sort of bad publicity that tends to make colleges (reluctantly) do the right thing.

Modern education is too much driven by money. It makes administrators do stupid things. Neither Coca-Cola nor financial services companies like Higher One has students best interest at heart. They are in it to make money, as they should be — that's their role. Should they be allowed to market? Sure. Should public schools act as their marketing arm? No. Should protecting their message from criticism be a legitimate goal of the schools? No.

CVCC leadership is about to get a short, sharp, embarrassing lesson. They deserve it.

Edited to add: Higher One's PR team is out and about on this topic.

What's The Law? It's What University of Wisconsin-Stout Administrators Feel That It Is, On Any Given Day. (Updated to Analyze UWS's Sudden Retreat)

Last month I wrote about how the University of Wisconsin-Stout ("UWS") tore down Professor James Miller's Firefly poster upon the silly pretext that it represented a threat, threatened him with arrest, then tore down another poster decrying fascism and threatened him over that poster as well. I also wrote about how UWS, once called out, simply doubled down, offering academic double-speak about "a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure."

Have UWS or its officials gotten smarter? No. No, they have not.

[Read more…]