Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The New York Times building has bedbugs and once Twitter found out, the hilarity flowed. One of the kinder comments came from George Washington University public affairs professor David Karpf, who tweeted, “The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”
Stephens is a conservative op-ed columnist whose skepticism on issues like rape culture and the realities of climate change, the need for racial justice, or the shared humanity of Arabs have earned him no friends on the left. He also frequently writes about free speech on college campuses and the “necessity of discomfort.”
Apparently that doesn’t apply to Twitter. He saw Karpf’s tweet somehow (it had not been re-tweeted by anyone at the time and was minimally liked) and wrote him a stern email, accusing the professor of setting “a new standard” for bad behavior online. Worse, Stephens cc’d the university’s provost, Forrest Maltzman. As anyone knows who has ever worked in customer service knows, when the rich guy demands to speak to your manager, it’s about it to get ugly.
Then the manager spoke. Maltzman wrote Stephens and affirmed Karpf’s right to speak, but then invited the columnist to “come to our campus to speak about civil discourse in our digital age.” It’s just the latest example of how the leaders of higher education in America are getting the issues surrounding campus speech entirely wrong. Asking someone to speak about civil discourse from a position of Stephens’ relative privilege on the matter drastically misjudges both the scope of this incident and the severity of the real problem.
Stephens has shut down his Twitter account, Karpf’s tweet has gone viral in a classic example of the Streisand effect, and that might have been the end of it for me – if not for the provost’s invitation. It’s worth pointing out that Stephens is wrong about the “new standard” for bad behavior being set by Karpf’s relatively mild comments, which Stephens called “dehumanizing.”
I’ve been called a number of anti-Semitic epithets, received death threats, and been threatened with sexual assault on Twitter. As a cis-white male, moreover, I get a tiny fraction of the abuse that any non-white-male writer gets (especially those with multiply marginalized identities). Let me tell you, being called a bedbug just isn’t a big deal.
Writing to a provost about the actions of an academic on Twitter, which Stephens said he did because “managers should be aware” how “their people…interact in the world,” is the big deal. Karpf is tenured, but untenured and part-time professors have lost jobs due to right-wing criticism of their social media posts. Just last week, Kirkwood Community College replaced an English professor due to posts in support for antifascist movements. As usual, people like Stephens and his colleagues who have been preaching about campus speech for years were silent.
The slide of the professoriate into the gig economy remains one of the biggest threats to free speech on college campuses today. It’s hard to fire a tenured professor except in extreme cases. It’s easy to let adjuncts go the moment there’s any kind of ruckus, even one created in bad faith.
When it comes to student speech, as I wrote just last week, it’s largely not conservatives who are experiencing disproportionate or targeted discrimination. Just Tuesday morning, the Harvard Crimson reported that on Friday, United States immigration officers deported a 17-year-old Palestinian incoming freshman named Ismail B. Ajjawi. His crime – according to Ajjawi, he was forced to unlock his phone and laptop, and an official found that he was friends with people who posted, “political points of view that oppose the US.” Harvard officials told the paper that they are working with the student to resolve the matter. A customs official said Ajjawi wasn’t deported, merely “not allowed entry” because they deemed him “inadmissible.”
I would be happy to welcome students who opposed the US to my classroom, much as I welcome students who love the United States. But in this case, Ajjawi says he made no political posts of his own, and is being deported merely because some of his friends did. For students coming of age in a world like ours, having someone talk about civil discourse because of being called a relatively benign name online is a wasted opportunity; it’s these more Orwellian situations that seem to happen with increasing frequency about which George Washington students should hear expert testimony.
I first wrote about campus speech for CNN in 2014. The “Bretbug” incident isn’t an important data point in our ongoing debate about what it means to protect freedom of expression on college campuses. But I remain frustrated by the provost’s response. We’re just not making any headway with the people who lead our institutions. The real fights for free speech happen when the marginalized try to speak truth to power, not when the powerful try to silence the truth.