The Asymmetrical Application of Free-Speech Principles

by James A. Bacon

Clifford S. Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, did a masterful job of distilling the free-speech debate on college campuses to its essence. Though he had in mind the disastrous testimony of the three Ivy League presidents last week regarding Palestinians and Jews, his Wall Street Journal op-ed describes the dilemma at the University of Virginia as well.

Alumni donors like me don’t object to free speech. What we can’t abide is the extremely asymmetrical application of free-speech principles. For years these schools, [the University of Pennsylvania] prominently included, have actively suppressed ideas disagreeable to the progressive worldview of their administrations, faculties and hard-core student activists. Now that those groups are talking about wiping Israel off the map, these college presidents are wrapping themselves in the First Amendment….

Unacceptable is the current status quo of free speech for those chanting slogans that amount to “death to the Jews” but not for those committing alleged microaggressions against the politically favored.

That is precisely the problem I have with the UVa administration.

The day after Hamas terrorists slaughtered thousands of defenseless Israeli citizens and abducted hundreds more, the Students for Justice in Palestine at UVA were free to say the following [my bold]:

Students for Justice in Palestine at UVa unequivocally supports Palestinian liberation and the right of colonized people everywhere to resist the occupation of their land by whatever means they deem necessary…. In an unprecedented feat for the 21st century, resistance fighters in Gaza broke through the illegitimate border fence, took occupation soldiers hostage, and seized control of several Israeli settlements…. We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance fighters and all oppressed people around the world seeking freedom.

In America, Palestinians and their leftist allies have the right to express heinous views — even justifying the massacre, beheading, and mass rape of civilians by invoking the tortured history of conflict between Palestinians and Jews over the past century. They have the right to march peacefully in support of those views. They have the right to organize “teach ins” that “teach” only one side, their side, of the story. No matter how utterly vile the rest of us find their opinions, no matter how offended we are by them, no matter the pain it causes us, they have the right to express them. And the Ryan administration is correct to respect their rights.

The problem is, in Asness’ brilliant phrase, the asymmetrical application of those principles. Since The Jefferson Council was formed in 2021, we have documented the following…

When attending a session on microaggressions, medical student Kieran Bhattacharya took issue in the Q&A session with the scholarly underpinnings of the concept. An offended member of the audience filed a professionalism concern card against him, triggering an administrative review of his behavior. That review became acrimonious and, when conflated with issues stemming from Bhattacharya’s mental health, ended with his expulsion from the Grounds and ultimately the medical school.

McIntire professor Jeffrey Leopold told a joke designed to illustrate the problem with stereotyping peoples and nationalities. The joke drew upon on stereotypes of Chinese, Russians, Americans, Europeans and… Africans. The punchline: “Africans didn’t know what food was.” Some students in the class were offended, their complaints went viral, and Leopold was forced into a groveling apology. He hung onto his job for two years, but this spring resigned from his post mid-semester with no explanation.

Morgan Bettinger was driving home from work when she was stopped by a downtown Black Lives Matter rally. She remarked to the driver of a city truck  that it was a good thing he was blocking the street or the protesters could become speed bumps. Some protesters overheard the comment, misinterpreted it, and denounced Bettinger for making it. Before long, she became the victim of a Twitter storm, was put under investigation by UVa authorities, and was sanctioned by the student judiciary. To graduate, she was compelled to apologize, perform social justice-related community service, and meet with a professor to discuss the history of police-community relations to “broaden her understanding.” After a formal UVa investigation found her innocent of wrongdoing, she appealed to have the mark on her record expunged. Citing the independence of the student judiciary, President Jim Ryan declined to get involved.

These stories are not outliers. We know of similar incidents, which we are not at liberty to disclose. The pattern is the same. If someone says something to agitate a favored identity group, a Twitter storm erupts, offenders are reported to the administration, investigations are held, jobs are put in jeopardy, and punishments are meted out. Thus, UVa has become a place where…

It’s OK to say: terror attacks on Israel are a justifiable response to oppression.
It’s not OK to say: the scholarship behind microaggression theory is flawed.

It’s OK to advocate: Palestine will be free from the river to the sea — a call for the eradication of the Israeli state with all its attendant consequences.
It’s not OK to joke: famine-plagued Africans don’t know what food is.

But there’s more to the asymmetry than formal administrative action. Jews at UVa have been subjected to insults and ethnic slurs that would not be tolerated if directed at a favored identity group. Those slurs go unreported and unpunished. Jewish students at UVa are hunkering down. Most keep a low profile to avoid confrontation. Most are afraid to speak out. The reluctance to speak openly for fear of ostracism or official retaliation is a problem that extends to many non-Jews as well, but during the current turmoil caused by the Hamas-Israel war, Jewish fears are especially acute.

President Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom have repeatedly expressed their dedication to free speech principles… in the abstract. But that’s not the problem. The problem is the application of those principles in real-world situations that are never exactly the same and require discretion in how to enforce them. The asymmetry is real, and it needs to end.

James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect an official Jefferson Council position. This column has been republished from The Jefferson Council blog with permission.