At colleges and universities across the country, including at Wesleyan, students are marching, protesting, and staging sit-ins in an effort to get presidents and administrators to acknowledge the racism that exists on their campuses.

In the past week, Timothy Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri, and Mary Spellman, the Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College, have resigned from their positions, while R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus, announced that he would step down to a less prominent role at the end of the year. Elsewhere, university presidents have emailed their students, stating their opposition to institutionalized racism and their support of student activists at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and their own campuses.

“Observing overt acts of racism, and listening to callous racist rhetoric in the public sphere, harms all, but it really disrupts the lives of those already made most vulnerable by unjust systems of discrimination and inequality,” University President Michael Roth wrote in an email to Wesleyan students.

That university presidents are responding to racism on their own campuses is a welcome and belated change. Both President Peter Salovey of Yale University and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway recently issued statements calling for more inclusion and support for students of color at their university. These came, however, only after each failed to respond to allegations that the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon turned away black women from a party.

Roth’s statement, meanwhile, came almost two months after students petitioned The Wesleyan Argus in response to an op-ed that staff writer Bryan Stascavage ’18 wrote about the Black Lives Matter Movement. Roth—along with provost Joyce Jacobsen and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias—responded to requests that the publication be defunded with a piece defending free speech. “Black Lives Matter, and So Does Free Speech,” they argued. The statement was necessary—it is hard for me to see the efforts to defund the paper as anything but an attack on free speech—but some students reasonably wished that someone in the administration would have addressed what they viewed as their primary concerns: the lack of diversity and lack of representation of students of color in The Argus.

What has been most heartening in this past week, however, is not the response of administrators but the tactics of student activists at this university. Whereas, earlier this year, they attacked Stascavage’s op-ed and The Argus, activists have now, for the most part, focused their attacks on the administration.

When a group of students of color came to The Argus offices on September 17, their demands were clear: the publication should apologize for having published an op-ed that hurt so many people. In an editorial, The Argus apologized for having hurt members of the Wesleyan community, and for having done a poor job editing and fact-checking the piece, but that was deemed insufficient: a petition calling for a temporary defunding and boycott of the publication until it met certain standards of diversity and inclusion was announced to members of The Argus the following Sunday.

Students, administrators, some members of The Argus (including myself), and writers from the outside press quickly called this a free speech issue. Some of the petitioners rejected that argument, saying that it was not a free speech issue. Some petitioners argued, in my discussions with them, that they didn’t have problems with the fact that the piece had been written but believed it should not have been published. Others have argued that focus on free speech diverted the discussion away from issues of racial diversity in The Argus.

They may have been right when they said the article should not have been published as it was written, but when they called for the defunding of The Argus—and when the Wesleyan Student Assembly voted on a resolution that, pending a later vote, would alter the funding structure and likely reduce the overall funding of The Argus—their points were rendered moot. College publications, as Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times reporter, wrote in a letter to the editor, make mistakes. College newspapers exist so that writers like me have a chance to fail in their reporting before people read their articles.

It is fair to say that The Argus should have taken more care than it did before publishing Stascavage’s piece. The Argus staff should take special care when editing a piece that covers sensitive topics. But when funding is put into jeopardy over these mistakes, we are being told that we shouldn’t take risks or wade into controversies. The repercussions are too harsh if and when we fail. It’s better to not talk about race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, we’re told, than it is to discuss these issues but risk writing about them—or editing them—poorly.

In the past couple of days, student activists at this university have aimed their criticism at President Roth and at institutional racism on college campuses. A poster at the Digital Design Studio told Roth, “You have failed us.” Students stood together at Usdan on Thursday in solidarity with the protests at the University of Missouri and Yale.

“This is not just a Missouri issue; this is not just a Yale issue,” Hailey Broughton-Jones ’18 was quoted in an Argus article as saying during that event. “This problem exists everywhere. This problem exists at Wesleyan.”

The shift towards talking about Roth and institutional racism at Wesleyan has changed what we’ve talked about with regard to student protests. The narrative of these events has appropriately become centered on racism, instead of free speech.

This shift reflects the changing narrative throughout the country of protests at college campuses. After protesters at the University of Missouri ousted their president, major publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the protests as an issue of racism. No such articles, to my knowledge, were written about Wesleyan.

To be sure, journalists continue to complain about free speech violations in what New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb calls “the free speech diversion.” As soon as students violate some issue of free speech, Cobb argues, the press focuses on that issue, and not on the racism students are fighting against. But the national dialogue has changed. When protesters at the University of Missouri briefly barred members of the press, including student photographer Tim Tai, from taking pictures at a public location, members of the press predictably derided it. But a Washington Post article, among others, also explained why the protesters might have been resistant to the media’s presence.

Even if discussions of free speech are, as Cobb argues, mere diversions from more substantive issues like racism, they are predictable and avoidable diversions. Cobb is eager to criticize journalists for turning every issue into a free speech issue and refusing to do the same with issues of racism, and he is right for doing so, but he fails to acknowledge how many of these narrative wounds are self-inflicted. Whether or not the media should have focused on the protesters who pushed Tai out of a space he had the legal right to be in, the protesters should not have pushed Tai back. Nor should students at Wesleyan threaten The Argus’s funding, even though the media should have done more to acknowledge the underlying problems of institutional racism at Wesleyan.

Recent events at Wesleyan, Missouri, and other college campuses, moreover, prove that free speech diversions can be diverted back into issues of racism. Now that student activists are emphasizing their experiences of racism on campus, instead of focusing on defunding The Argus over an op-ed it published, we are talking about racism, and not about free speech. It’s about time.

Lee is a member of the Class of 2016.

  • JG

    Talk about an unfocused, muddled point of view. The issue of “free speech” is not a mere diversion. When activists attempt to advance their cause by stifling others’ right (I don’t just mean ‘legal’ right) to speak freely, the issue of freedom of expression must precedence every time. Your suggestion that people seize upon free speech as a mere “diversion” just shows how weak the commitment to that ideal has become.

    Even more troubling and confusing is: “yes we should have censored the article, just please don’t touch our funding because that is free speech”? huh?” Do you value free speech? Or just getting paid?

  • Anonymous

    Calling free speech a “diversion” is itself an attempt at diversion as this protest movement careens from one indefensible position to another. Student activists have realized that calling for the destruction of newspapers, slashing Argus’ funding, and surrounding and screaming at a Yale professor were utterly indefensible. If this was purely a discussion of racism, what should have followed were swift apologies along the lines of “that should not have happened, we regret it, but here are the specific race issues that are really important…” Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened. So just stop. Take a deep breath:

    What do you want? Is the goal to fight racism, or to make an authority figure bend to demands? Movements like Occupy collapsed under the indulgent self-righteousness of some of its members, are you keeping the claims and demands real? Is demanding a statement of “solidarity” from your peers any different from “you’re either for us or against us”? What is your definition of “institutional” racism? I doubt you can credibly support a claim that the administration is inherently racist or affording you less opportunities than other students, but if you disagree, spell it out instead of circular logic like “if you don’t see what I see, it’s because you’re racist”. If what you really mean is “prevalent” racism, most would agree but you’re still going to have to embrace legitimate questions like whether a reporting system for “microaggressions” is really a cure or even a positive. All of this is much harder than wearing black, raising your fist, or writing murky articles in the Argus, but it will define whether you actually make a meaningful contribution to combating racism.

  • Tucker Pendleton

    It’s axiomatic that two critical components of a democracy are freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Without freedom to express different points of view, or the ability to disseminate them, the polity is precluded from informed decision-making concerning policy. Why does this Movement want to starve the Press? Could it be that it’s intellectual and evidentiary bases are shallow? If so, would it not want to silence its critics who will expose them as such? Americans are too smart to buy into this absurdity — it’s the same method of the Cultural Revolution in China, Khmers Rouges in Cambodia, inter alia; albeit, with less violence. Because of this, the movement will hit a wall, particularly in intellectual circles; unfortunately, it is likely to make allies of enemies and enemies of allies as a result. Thought suppression will backfire against its merited arguments, unfortunately. When you try to coerce people, control them like chess pieces, forgetting they have their own volition, you are likely to get an unintended result. Perhaps more discrimination, like implied racism with a passive aggressive twist — or worse, another more insidious type — not discussed yet — a kind of “racist omission” neither implied or enumerated. Instead of engaging the hyperbole and drama, it’s the kind where friends, some with capital, position, and influence, omit their assistance and withdraw; simply, crossing to the other side of the street because they do not want to be called a racist for countering a person of color’s point of view. Both are left worse off as a result — so is society in the aggregate.

    Note: If Argus is training wheels, now is the time to stand up for your inveterate right to disseminate opposing perspectives. It’s in everyone’s best interest: The Movement, its critics, the Press, and everybody in between. If you can’t stand up for yourself now, and the critical institution you represent, regardless of peer pressure or passing fancies, how are you’re going to stand up for the readers that rely on you to make choices?