If you believe that there is an illiberal trend against free speech on campus, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is exhibit A. Evergreen became a crucible for the campus wars in March of 2017, when evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein spoke against anti-racist protests and activities on campus. As a result, Weinstein claims, he was targeted with physical and verbal harassment. Last September, he and his wife, biologist Heather Heying, sued the university for failing to protect them from harassment. Evergreen admitted no wrongdoing, but settled for $500,000, and Weinstein and Heying left their positions on the faculty. Since then, Weinstein has become a poster boy for those who want to paint left-wing students as intolerant totalitarians. The couple's posture of martyrdom has also led to lush, credulous treatments in the press: Weinstein and Heying were recently photographed at night standing moodily in front of shrubbery along with other free-speech warriors in the New York Times.*
Recent events at Evergreen, though, suggest a different narrative. Weinstein's story is not one about out-of-control leftist students silencing professors. Rather, it's a story about how professors who align with right-wing media can shape university policy, while sidelining and demonizing students. "Free speech," wielded in bad faith by right-wing media, can turn into a gag to silence student protests and activism.
The original controversy at Evergreen involved the school's Day of Absence, an official event that has been held for decades. As part of the tradition, faculty and students of color would leave campus to illustrate their importance to the school and community. The next day, they return on a Day of Presence, when there are speakers and programming for the entire school.
Last year, following the election of Donald Trump, Evergreen tweaked the event. Immigrants and undocumented people on campus were frightened by Trump's promises to step up deportations, so the school, following faculty and student input, decided to use the Day of Absence to re-affirm that "students belonged on campus and that there wasn't going to be any harassment or targeting of them on campus," says Jacqueline Littleton, an activist and a senior at Evergreen. To make that point, administrators switched the usual practice: Instead of people of color leaving campus, white people were asked to do so.
This is where Weinstein came in. After the change in policy was announced, he sent an email in March of 2017, in which he said that the change in the day's structure was dangerous and immoral. "There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles ... and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in itself." The email was leaked in mid April.
Many students were irritated and angered by Weinstein's email. But it did not trigger protests, nor calls for Weinstein to be fired. In fact, the protests on campus supposedly responding to the email did not take place until May of 2017, and were focused on an entirely different incident, Littleton says. That month, police took two black students out of their dorms just before midnight, following an altercation in the cafeteria the day before, according to Littleton. White students involved in the incident were not detained. In response, activists organized protests, which included demonstrations and marches through classroom buildings in order to raise awareness.
During this march, Weinstein decided to come out of his classroom and confront the protesters. The protesters were well aware of Weinstein's email, and the conversation grew contentious. Students were especially angered when police arrived; they initially believed that Weinstein had called them himself. Since the students were protesting police bias, this was seen as an especially inflammatory move.
The student protesters' lists of demands after the cafeteria incident included zero tolerance for hate crimes, free health care for students, and a freeze on expansion of police facilities. Though the list initially included a request that Weinstein be fired, the student protesters removed it after a day, because, according to Littleton, "we were really trying to get away from the narrative that it was all about him or even mostly about him."
Yet Weinstein continued to insist that the protesters were mainly concerned with his email. Though Weinstein calls himself a progressive, he went on the rabidly right-wing, anti-immigrant Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News shortly after the protests. Carlson claimed that white people had been forced off campus, which was not true. He then played a clip of the protest, framing it to suggest, falsely, that the protest had been a response to Weinstein's email alone. Weinstein co-signed that version of events, and did not correct Carlson when he said that the core demand of the protesters was that white people leave campus—which, again, was completely false. Participation in the Day of Absence was voluntary, and student demands did not include any discussion of forcing students off campus.
Weinstein's appearance on Carlson alerted the far right to the anti-racist protests at Evergreen, unleashing a flood of hate mail and a credible far-right terrorist threat that led to administrators evacuating the campus for three days in June. The school had to move the location of graduation.
Weinstein also tweeted several pictures of college students who he claimed were involved in violence. For example, he claimed that students with bats were roaming campus, and used as evidence a clearly staged photo, unlinked to the protests, with no evidence that the students pictured were involved in any violence. The fallout for these students was intense. One student, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their safety, said that they started receiving death threats from people who knew their address. "I had to move three times for my safety and eventually left the state," the student says. Later, the student was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the constant threats. "I feel incredibly isolated, like no one could understand or even wants to take the time to understand what really happened," the student says. "The narrative surrounding our goals and actions has been so horribly skewed, I don't know how to begin addressing it."
The Weinstein controversy has also had permanent effects on the college itself. In 2018, Evergreen decided to cancel the Day of Absence. The official school statement says that the event was canceled because "Gross and deliberate mischaracterizations of the event in 2017 provoked violent threats against students, staff and faculty." In short, encouraged by Weinstein, right-wing hate-mongers were successful in their effort to shutter an anti-racist event, all under the banner of defending "free speech."
Students at Evergreen, however, were not ready to let the tradition die, so, without school support, Littleton and others organized a three-day event. They returned to the original structure of the Day of Absence, whereby people of color left campus for a day.
"The student of color population at Evergreen is pretty small," Littleton tells me, "so it can feel really isolating here sometimes, and this way we get to meet other people of color and maybe talk about our shared experiences at Evergreen. And a lot of white people who have taken part in the Day of Absence have also really liked it. We had a lot of white people involved in the planning of this year's Day of Absence, and they did a lot of the work in helping make this happen."
In his initial email, Weinstein praised the traditional Day of Absence, in which black people left campus. Yet, when he found out about the student-organized event, he apparently became displeased, retweeting a commenter who claimed that Evergreen students were "self-segregating," and later made a snarky remark about their poster design. (Weinstein did not respond to requests for comment.)
Weinstein's tweet went out to 123,000 Twitter followers; Breitbart News also picked up his comments. As a result, Evergreen organizers were once again deluged with hate mail. The RSVP link for the 2018 Day of Absence received over 200 messages from troll accounts with names like "Bad Idea," "AK 47," and "Adolf Hitler." The response overwhelmed the website, making it difficult for organizers to notify participants about a change of venue.
Some online trolls even threatened to show up at Evergreen itself. Zoé Samudzi, a speaker at the 2018 Day of Absence and co-author of the forthcoming book As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation, was contacted by the Carlson show; the producer asked her questions about whether she really wanted to be associated with such an event, apparently trying to provoke a controversial response. In the end, the 2018 Day of Absence proceeded without any violence or confrontation on campus. Samudzi tells me she gave a well-received talk to an engaged audience that, like the student body at Evergreen, was mostly white.
"I think that there's a particular cowardice in the university not sponsoring the Day of Absence," Samudzi says. "I think that we're seeing how a lot of university administration, regardless of how liberal they're purporting to be, really capitulate to the social and political pressure that's put on them by the far right. I think that that's really the big threat to academic free speech."
Right-wing media personalities like to present left-wing students—especially black left-wing students—as dangerous totalitarians, threatening democracy. But the truth is that students have limited power, and limited ability to make themselves heard. Right-wing media has been eager to amplify Weinstein. In contrast, students at Evergreen have struggled to get their stories out. Weinstein left Evergreen with a generous pay-off, and now has a successful Patreon and enjoys flattering coverage in the New York Times. Students on campus, meanwhile, lost anti-racist programming, and faced far right harassment, without any tangible recompense.
Despite threats and administrative hostility, these students refused to let the Day of Absence die. Still, that shouldn't obscure the way that Carlson, Weinstein, and others misrepresented the nature of the event, encouraged harassment, and stirred up protest in a nearly successful effort to suppress anti-racism on campus. That seems a whole lot like a curtailment of free speech—unless, of course, you have convinced yourself that students don't have anything to say.
*Update—June 15th, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect the full name of Evergreen State College.