The signs were already all over the walls: hatred will be returning in force to campuses across the country this academic year, and will be packaged as “free speech.” The alt-right rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville may be seen as a defining moment for many, but any outspoken faculty of color, any radical faculty member who ever spoke about justice for Palestine, denounced anti-black racism in termed deemed “uncivil,” or pressured their administration to seriously address misogyny and sexual assault on campuses, has long known there is a hefty price to pay for speaking out against injustice, even as Zionists and white supremacists fill the lecture halls.
Some cases, such as that of Professor Steven Salaita, who was fired from a tenured position over tweets criticizing Israel during its 2014 Gaza assault, have rightly made international headlines. But the majority, ranging from daily micro-aggressions to outright censorship and blacklisting, go unreported. The illusion of free speech on campuses is little more than that, as Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently pointed out in a New York Times OpEd. Taylor explains that, after giving a commencement speech in which she was critical of President Donald Trump, “Within hours, invective filled my inbox.”
“I received emails that promised I would be lynched, shot and raped,” Taylor wrote, “and Princeton’s department of African-American studies, of which I am a member, was so flooded with hate that the locks on the doors had to be changed.” Taylor subsequently cancelled a lecture in Seattle, out of fear for her own safety, as well as that of family members.
Taylor also mentions the cases of three professors, Johnny Eric Williams of Trinity College, Tommy Curry of Texas A&M, and Lisa Durden of Essex County College in New Jersey, who were sanctioned by their universities in the past few months, over their denunciation of white supremacy. Durden, an adjunct, was fired, Williams is on voluntary leave after being suspended, and Texas A&M, which initially distanced itself from Curry, has now issued a statement of support for freedom of expression, but only after coming after intense pressure to do so.
Taylor limits herself to faculty who were sanctioned for speaking out against anti-black racism, but the instances of silencing pro-Palestinian rights speech are even more numerous, and have been consistent since the mid-1960s. We cannot forget that Professor Edward Said also received multiple death threats, in addition to being called “Professor of Terror,” and “ideologue of terror” for denouncing Israeli abuses. Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism, which founded the discipline of postcolonial studies, has been described by Zionists as “false scholarship,” and there is evidence he came under FBI surveillance as early as 1971. More recently, Palestine Legal has documented numerous incidents targeting faculty as well as students who openly support Palestinian rights. And while Palestine is emblematic of outside pressures impacting freedom of speech on campuses, the current political moment suggests that many hate fronts will be interfering with the rights of progressive faculty members and student organizations focusing on issues ranging from reproductive justice to Indigenous sovereignty. Indeed, Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group founded in March 2016, announced last year that it will be focusing its recruitment on university campuses nationally, and has already distributed racist stickers and handouts, and plastered many bulletin boards with its hate-filled posters. Clearly, the academic battlefront is heating up again, and the overall official sanctioning of violence does not bode well for progressives.
With this in mind, and after months of behind the scenes organizing, a new “campus antifascist network” (referred to by its members as “CAN”) was launched earlier this month. One of its founders, American Studies Professor Bill Mullen of Purdue University, has first-hand experience of the attacks a pro-justice faculty member receives, as he has come under political attack himself in retaliation for his support of various radical causes on his campus.
“The Campus Anti-Fascist Network is a grassroots, multiracial collective of faculty, students and staff committed to fighting the presence of fascists, white supremacists and nationalists on University campuses,” Mullen wrote me. It is “committed to building teach-ins and workshops on campuses this Fall about the meaning of fascism and how to fight it. To that end we have created an ‘Anti-Fascist Syllabus.’ We are also preparing documents to help people defend themselves when attacked by fascists and also how to protest their appearance on campuses.”
Modelled upon other public syllabi such as the Ferguson syllabus, the Standing Rock syllabus, and the Islamophobia Is Racism syllabus, the anti-fascist syllabus is available to all online. It covers the historical background, up to the present, of fascism in Europe and the US, and can be used in a classroom context as well as by non-academic activist reading groups.
Mullen added that the network has exploded since the confrontation in Charlottesville. “We have nearly 200 members nationally and internationally. Nearly 1,000 people joined our [closed] Facebook page within 48 hours when it went live.” That number has now reached over 1400. “The Network is committed to protecting the most vulnerable on campuses from fascist attack, and to working with other anti-racist, anti-fascist groups in broad coalition.”
Despite its claim to be a haven of free thought and inquiry, the academy has long been a bastion of institutionalized privilege, and has historically come on the tail end of social advancements in civil rights. It has also been notoriously selective in its interpretation of “free speech,” by granting avowed racists and foreign-government sponsored propagandists a forum, while denying its own students the right to form justice-oriented groups. With its broad umbrella and its membership not limited to faculty, but open to staff and students, and particularly welcoming of unions, CAN intends to provide support to all disenfranchised communities who feel threatened in the present climate, while applying effective pressure on university administrators not to accommodate supremacists and neo-Nazis’ requests to host events bound to incite to violence.
The task is immense, but there are some welcome developments already. White rights activist Richard Spenser’s presentation at the University of Florida, previously scheduled for September 1, was cancelled Wednesday over concerns of another violent confrontation. “Amid serious concerns for safety, we have decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent event space at the University of Florida,” university president W. Kent Fuchs wrote, adding “I find the racist rhetoric of Richard Spencer and white nationalism repugnant and counter to everything the university and this nation stands for. That said, the University of Florida remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse. However, the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others.”
And on Thursday, Michigan State University also denied Spencer’s organization’s request to rent space for one of its speakers, citing concerns for the safety of the university community. “While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community,” the University statement explained.
CAN has its work cut out, as it intends to educate about fascism in its multiple guises, linking various struggles against supremacy, and creating the foundation for campuses where moral integrity and intellectual honesty prevail over blurred distinctions between free speech and hate speech. As justice for Palestine no longer represents the only deeply-engrained exception to free speech on campus, anti-fascist academic community members are joining ranks to organize against all threats to free speech.
A website with a mission statement will soon be active, and anyone interested in joining the network should send an email to [email protected]