The XX Factor

If You’re Really Concerned About Free Speech on Campus, This Missouri Bill Should Alarm You

Student protesters on the campus of University of Missouri–Columbia in November.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Two Missouri legislators have introduced a bill that would revoke the scholarships of college athletes who refuse to play for non-health-related reasons—reasons such as a strike to protest campus racism, like the one the Mizzou football team leveraged to great effect this fall.

Lawyer and former Las Vegas Sun sports reporter Steve Silver has already pointed out that the bill almost definitely violates student athletes’ freedoms of speech and assembly under Missouri’s own constitution, and that the university, as a state entity, “would be subject to a constitutional challenge, unlike a private employer.” The bill also plays into an ugly history in which schools expect to keep tight control over primarily black student athletes while getting their labor for free. Filmmaker and former NFL player Matthew Cherry tweeted the text Monday with the comment, “This is damn near modern day slavery.”

At Mizzou, a graduate student’s life-endangering hunger strike brought only tepid national attention to a series of racist incidents and the university’s indifferent response. But once the football team announced it would strike until university system President Tim Wolfe resigned, it took less than three days for him to step down. The Missouri legislators’ effort to suppress the most powerful force in the student movement should be a wake-up call to everyone who has argued that student protestors are trampling on free speech. Advocates of free speech should be more concerned with protecting the voices of student protestors—and especially students of color—than with defending the voices of institutional power.

As anyone who followed the protests at Mizzou, Yale University, and other colleges this fall will know, “free speech” has become an all-purpose rebuke to students demanding heightened sensitivity to racism on campus. In his piece “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote, “the students behave like bullies even as they see themselves as victims.” I won’t disagree that, at times, it’s been disturbing to observe students’ instincts for silencing the opposition. My colleague Michelle Goldberg was appalled by protesters at Amherst College who wanted their president to issue a statement that the school would “not tolerate” the appearance of signs on campus saying “All Lives Matter” and “In Memoriam of the True Victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech,” and would discipline students who posted them or require them “to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.” I was particularly saddened by the Wesleyan student government’s decision to cut more than half the funding from the student newspaper, seemingly to punish it for running an editorial critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. (For me, this recalls my own experience as an editor of Yale’s student newspaper: After the paper ran an editorial disparaging campus feminists, some students wanted us to apologize with “a day of silence for journalism.”) The impulse to close a fist around a newspaper—a community’s primary organ of speech—is a form of petty despotism. Better to flood the opinion page, or the campus airwaves, with your own message instead.

Student protesters overstep, self-contradict, and, sometimes let their anger win. Throughout it all, though, they are exercising their rights to free speech. Two people shouting at each other to just shut up and listen to me—a scene that played out between a student and a residential college master at Yale—are both exemplars of that ideal, though ones that are unlikely to give us the warm-fuzzies about the beauty of our liberal principles at work.

The Missouri legislators’ bill is a warning about elevating free speech while excluding the speech of students from the rubric. To do so is to weight the incidents in which protestors have managed to boycott a speaker or shut down a play heavier than the expanse of structural factors that keep students of color—or poor students, queer students, survivors of sexual assault, and other groups—silent, sometimes for years, until the frustration on campus bubbles over. Universities are not neutral spaces before the protests begin. In “Race and the Free Speech Diversion,” New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb points out the hypocrisy of calling “free speech” down on the heads of students, but not on those of the people who originally told the students that their concerns weren’t worth making noise about: “[T]he student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not… The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered.”

It’s also the case that student protesters don’t speak with a monolithic voice, and that, for most, silencing detractors doesn’t appear to be the priority. Yes, at Mizzou, a group of protesters (along with a misguided communications professor) physically shoved a student photographer on assignment for ESPN away from their tent-city HQ. This was lamentably poor PR, and one can argue whether it violated freedom of the press—but it shouldn’t be presented outside the context of the fact that Mizzou protesters did talk to the press. The football team, indeed, came off looking extremely media-savvy. At Yale, the video of a student yelling at her college master to “Be quiet!” went viral—but less attention has been paid to the hundreds of students who gathered on multiple occasions to tell their stories of racism experienced on campus. Even at Amherst, the students’ proposal that the student body can be socially engineered into tolerance through “training for racial and cultural competency” is inflected with a certain naïve hope.

The same can’t be said for the Missouri legislators’ bill. As Slate senior editor Jeremy Stahl wrote in November, the NCAA tried this year to protect the free speech of student athletes, making it harder for schools to revoke their funding arbitrarily. The Missouri bill threatens to reverse that progress, entrenching the ugly dynamic in which, as Silver writes, universities force players to perform like employees, then get out of paying them, or letting them unionize, by arguing that they “are just like any other students and should not be treated differently.” This bill clearly “treats athletes differently,” he points out. “It seeks to use a college scholarship from a public university as collateral for preventing athletes from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

It’s hard to say whether the bill has a real chance of passing, and it’s reasonable to hope that a constitutional challenge would protect athletes if it did. But to the self-proclaimed defenders of free speech, I present this bill as an example more than worthy of your concern.