Skip to main content

Why Can't 'Free Speech' Advocates Ever Defend Adjunct Professors and People of Color?

The firing of Lisa Durden after her appearance on Tucker Carlson's show exposes a major blind spot for free-speech crusaders.
Tucker Carlson Lisa Durden

Lisa Durden used to be an adjunct professor at Essex County College in New Jersey. In early June, she appeared on Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News as a political commentator to defend a blacks-only Black Lives Matter Memorial Day party in New York. She had not attended the party. Neither the event nor her appearance had anything to do with academic credentials. Still, after the appearance, Carlson's fans flooded the college with phone calls, accusing Durden of reverse racism and demanding she be terminated. The university quickly caved. The president said that firing Durden was necessary to maintain a "safe space."*

In contrast to other free speech-related controversies on college campuses, there has been almost no media coverage of Durden's ouster. That omission is part of a pattern: When wealthy, right-wing speakers and politicians encounter protest, the tendency among both right-wing and centrist writers is to scold "snowflake" students while dutifully preaching the virtues of diverse ideas in a college education, no matter how outré or dangerous those ideas might be. When marginalized faculty, often women of color, encounter professional censure, the same centrist writers say nothing. One could almost conclude that the "PC-run-amok" and "trigger warning" controversies exist solely to reaffirm existing power dynamics. It's not really about free speech on campus at all.

For academics, Carlson's show is a trap. He likes to bait liberals—especially those from marginalized populations—into defending their views in ways that will inflame his followers. There is no way for a liberal to win on Carlson's show, especially where race is concerned: Since right-wing voters like to imagine that they are the only real victims of persecution, they pounce with self-righteous glee on anything they see as "reverse racism." (NB: Racism is a system of power-based oppression—not the mere presence of racial stereotypes—and cannot be reversed casually, if at all.)

After Durden defended the black-only meeting—telling Carlson, "You white people are angry because you couldn't use your white privilege card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter's all-black Memorial Day Celebration"—Carlson's fans were triggered into action. They staged a wave of calls to Essex County College, where the college's new president quickly fired her.

Maybe it's time to stop scolding students and faculty—maybe it's time to start defending them.

That president is Anthony E. Munroe, formerly president of Malcolm X. College in Chicago, who only just took office, on June 1st. Following her Carlson appearance on June 6th, and the wave of angry phone calls, Munroe suspended Durden, investigated her situation, then fired her after a June 20th hearing. Munroe's statement on Durden's firing read, in part:

I fully believe that institutions of higher learning must provide a safe space for students to explore, discuss and debate, not only academic philosophies, but the harder issues related to living harmoniously and growing together in our communities and as a country. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education." The character of this institution mandates that we embrace diversity, inclusion, and unity. Racism cannot be fought with more racism.

Notice Munroe's appropriation of the phrase "safe space" to justify firing a black, female, contingent professor. "Safe space" is a term that emerged among marginalized groups as an important respite from oppression and aggression—a space where black students might avoid racism, where survivors of sexual assault could be sure no one would defend rape culture, and where other kinds of trauma might be avoided for a bit. Proponents of safe spaces never asked for all of campus to function as one. Rather, they wanted to create contexts where marginalized people could breathe a little and find community. In other words, a safe space is much like the Memorial Day Black Lives Matter celebration that Durden was defending. Now, Munroe has decreed that a safe space requires kicking Durden out of his community.

Where, one might ask, is the outrage from free-speech advocates? We've become accustomed to stern finger-wagging every time left-wing students or outside groups decide to protest right-wing speech. In May, Bob Collins, a veteran radio columnist on Minnesota Public Radio, called Bethune-Cookman students "failures" after they booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Peter Roff, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, called Notre Dame students "classless" for walking out on Vice President Mike Pence's commencement speech (Pence proceeded to lecture the remaining students about the scourge of political correctness on campus). New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens gave a commencement address at Hampden-Sydney College about the importance of leaving safe spaces. The New York Times' editorial board, as a body, criticized Middlebury College students for protesting a speech by the sociologist Charles Murray over his pro-racial-eugenics writing.

As we've covered at Pacific Standard, hate-mongers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have succeeded at provoking outrage, then crying free speech—afterward gaining sympathetic coverage from centrist writers. In previous years, authors such as Conor Friedersdorf, Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Haidt, and Judith Shulevitz have fixated on protests against microaggressions at elite colleges (bad banh mi sandwiches at Oberlin College, racist costumes at Yale University), to the detriment of covering pervasive and well-funded attacks by right-wing groups like Campus Reform and Professor Watchlist against left-wing academics. (In this instance, Haidt did tweet a clear condemnation of Durden's firing. Friedersdorf has done likewise, using the case to demonstrate the accuracy of his prediction that left-wing student pursuit of safe spaces would be used against them.)**

On Sunday, June 25th, the University of Delaware fired a 62-year-old adjunct professor for Facebook posts, and at least one comment on National Review, in which she said that Otto Warmbier, the young man detained in North Korea, got what he deserved. The professor was then targeted by both Fox News and Breitbart. Right-wing news outlets have also targeted a number of tenured professors, mostly by mischaracterizing their statements in ways calculated to inflame. Death threats have followed. What professor, in the face of such pressure from major right-wing media organizations and legions of angry fans, will dare to speak her mind?

My contention is simple: When professors are being fired, censured, harassed, threatened, or otherwise silenced for their speech, right-wing or left-wing, that should be the focus of anyone who claims to be dedicated to free speech and academic freedom. Maybe it's finally time to stop scolding left-wing students and faculty—maybe it's time to start defending them.

*Update—June 27th, 2017: This article has been updated to better reflect the circumstances around Durden's appearance on Carlson's show.

**Update—June 27th, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect that Haidt and Friedersdorf have commented specifically about the Durden affair.