In Defense of Orgo Night #6
On Thursday, December 15, 2016, at midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band (“the cleverest band in the world™”) performed a show of music and satirical comedy in sub-freezing temperatures on the steps outside Butler Library on the Columbia campus Vice-Provost and recently hired Head Librarian Ann D. Thornton, with the support of President Lee Bollinger and Columbia College Dean James Valentini, banned the Band from performing the show in its traditional location inside the library. Ms. Thornton stated that the reason for the sudden change in tradition was a desire to maintain quiet study space inside the library, and President Bollinger publicly maintained that it was based on “complaints” from students about the Orgo Night show. University officials claimed that the ban was not related to the content of the shows and that they were not trying to censor the Band’s speech. This series of essays, drafted by concerned alumni, addresses the university’s claimed reasoning for its decision, the process by which it was implemented, and the reasons why the decision should be reconsidered.
Links to earlier essays are found on the right margin of this blog.
The appearance of censorship is nearly as bad as actual censorship
Across the country, public and private universities struggle with the proper response to objectionable speech and whether to discipline students and faculty based comments regarding social and racial issues. In one of the most publicized incidents, two members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity were expelled from school after a video was posted of them leading others in the singing of a racist song. At Tufts, students in fraternities and sororities were warned of “serious disciplinary sanctions” if they wore Halloween costumes “that could offend others.” Missouri law students passed a speech code that Above the Law called Orwellian. Amherst students called for a speech code that could have sanctioned students for displaying an “All Lives Matter” poster. At Duke, student activists demanded disciplinary sanctions for students who attend “culturally insensitive” parties and called for denial of tenure for faculty whose speech or writings “could potentially harm the academic achievements of students of color.”
The litany of incidents and reactions (some would say over-reactions) at universities around the country has become almost routine. As noted in a Time magazine article on the subject, “our universities have taught a generation of Americans [that] If you don’t agree with someone, are uncomfortable with an idea, or don’t find a joke funny, then their speech must be suppressed.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on a survey of 800 college students that found 51 percent favored speech codes. The University of Chicago famously responded to this trend by admonishing its freshmen that there are no safe zones there and that students should be ready to face ideas that might make them uncomfortable. In a commencement speech last year at Howard University, President Obama (CC ’83) said: “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.”
Columbia University projects an image to the public that it is a pillar of intellectual integrity and a sanctuary for free speech and the open exchange of ideas. “The Rules of University Conduct, found in Chapter XLIV of the Statutes of Columbia University, are intended to ensure that all members of our community may engage in our cherished traditions of free expression and open debate. Like society at large, but even more so, the University has a vital interest in fostering a climate in which nothing is immune from scrutiny. Columbia has a long tradition of valuing dissent and controversy and in welcoming the clash of opinions onto the campus. (Free speech statement posted on https://www.thefire.org/schools/columbia-university/.) The University’s statement of principles continues as follows:
To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return.
University President Lee C. Bollinger stated at the 2016 Convocation for new students that “We don’t censor speech.”
To be clear, private universities like Columbia are entirely within their legal rights to restrict speech. This is not a First Amendment issue because private universities are not government actors and are not bound by Constitutional principles. However, the reputation of a college or university is significantly affected by the way it handles student and faculty speech. Those, like Columbia, that purport to be defenders of free speech rights and who claim to welcome discussion of controversial topics must practice what they preach in order to maintain the reputation they desire. President Bollinger recently stated that if the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was invited to campus to speak, he would allow it, because Columbia does not censor speech.
It would be damaging to the university’s reputation in the eyes of prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty and potential faculty, and the public generally if the university engaged in censorship of students or student groups, in contravention of its stated ideals and principles.
What, then, are we to make of the university’s decision to try to muzzle its sometimes controversial Marching Band? Certainly, over many years, the Band’s shows on Orgo Nights have generated protests, cries of outrage, and condemnation from students and student groups who have claimed that the programs, or in some cases the posters advertising the show, were offensive to some groups or individuals. But, despite calls for action against the Band, university administration did not retaliate based on the Band’s speech and permitted the Orgo Night’s performances to continue without interruption – until December of 2016.
If the university administrators responsible for the action against the Band were actually motivated by a desire to censor the Band’s content and reduce its audience based on objections to the messages that they thought might be included in the program, such censorship would violate university principles. For this reason, the administration cannot admit such an improper motive, and in fact President Bollinger has specifically denied that censorship of the message was the motive behind the action.
And yet, the facts surrounding the decision strongly suggest that censorship was actually motivating the university’s actions. The evidence for this conclusion is set out in detail in an earlier essay. The involved administrators, of course, will deny such an actual motive, as they must. But the motives asserted as being the basis for the decision are demonstrably false and lack any rational foundation, leaving any objective observer to wonder: what was the real motive that the administrators don’t want to admit? The only conclusion is that the real motive is, indeed, censorship, because if there were another motive the university would be willing to articulate it.
In addition, the university must deal with the very real appearance of censorship. It is possible that Ann Thornton, Dean Valentini, President Bollinger, and the other members of the secret cabal that made the decision to ban the Band from the library acted not out of an overt intent to censor the band, but rather out of a mistaken understanding of the facts, or based on incorrect information provided by others, or based on some other invalid reason. But observers, including other student groups, will view the assault on the Band as clearly the censorship of the Band’s speech. This appearance of censorship is as bad for the university as actual censorship.
Consider this example. An associate professor at Columbia gives a speech on campus in which he makes statements that are later the subject of protests claiming that the statements are demeaning toward a minority group. Student groups on campus boycott his classes and protest around university buildings, but the university President issues a statement of support that the professor has the right to speak and that Columbia welcomes controversial discussion as part of its intellectual mandate. The protests die down after a few weeks. A few months later, the professor is denied tenure and effectively fired. In the process of discussing whether to issue tenure to the controversial professor, his Department Head states that the decision was based on the professor’s failure to publish substantial articles, the poor reviews of his classes by his students, and peer reviews by department professors. After the decision is announced, an independent investigation concludes that the professor published more articles, which were more critically praised, than three other professors who were granted tenure in the prior year, including one who was granted tenure in the same review cycle. The investigation also shows that the professor’s classes received higher student ratings than the other professor who was granted tenure, and that the person granted tenure received lower scores in peer reviews.
It may be true, in this example, that the tenure committee had incorrect information, or it may have been that some information was misrepresented or misinterpreted. Regardless of the truth, it appears that tenure was withheld in retaliation for the professor’s controversial speech, despite assurances to the contrary. Other potential faculty members will see this and wonder whether free speech is really protected at Columbia, or whether protests by students will result in adverse action that will be cloaked in false rationales. The appearance of adverse action based on controversial speech is a black eye for the university even if there really was another reason.
Appearances are important, and perception is reality for many. The appearance of censorship by university administration is a serious problem. Whether warranted or not, the university is at risk here of fostering an image of Columbia as a university where controversial speech is met by retaliation and censorship. The transparently false justifications offered by university administration for the cancellation of the Orgo Night program leaves the impression that censorship is the true motive, and correct or not, inflicts a black eye on Columbia that is difficult to remove.
The solution to this problem is simple, but is the one thing that university administrators resist most – admitting that they made a mistake. The decision regarding Orgo Night was made hastily and without sufficient data or discussion. There is little shame in admitting these realities and returning the Orgo Night show to its traditional location in Butler 209. If in fact there is a problem that needs to be addressed, the administration can properly study it, consider it, and take action based on facts that would not present the same appearance of censorship. Admitting error is a sign of intelligence, not weakness. Facts were not complete, analysis was not thorough, and contrary information and alternatives were not properly considered. Admitting this is not an indictment of the university, but failing to admit it will leave a lasting mark.