Newspapers hardly run obituaries unless somebody pays for them, so you probably didn’t see the official death notice of the English language a couple of weeks ago. When the University of Missouri released a letter from 115 faculty members supporting their colleague Melissa Click and demanding that the school “defend her First Amendment rights of protest and freedom to act as a private citizen,” words lost all meaning.
“First Amendment rights,” in this case, are Click’s rights to order a mob attack on a student journalist who was covering a protest on the Missouri campus last November. Notice the absence of words like “allegedly” or “accused of” in that sentence. The entire incident was captured on video.
It shows a videographer from Missouri’s student newspaper approaching one of the demonstrators at a campus protest against racism and asking if he can interview her. An angrily scowling Click immediately intervenes. “You need to get out, you need to get out,” she demands, shoving the reporter, although the demonstration was taking place in a public area of the campus.
“I actually don’t,” replies the reporter. “All right!” snaps Click, turning to the crowd to shout, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”
Luckily, Missouri students have more sense than their professors (though that’s apparently a low bar) and the demonstrators didn’t respond. But local prosecutors, who along with millions of others saw the video on the Internet, did. They charged Click with assault. She last week avoided jail by agreeing to perform community service and stay out of trouble for a year.
That may be a reasonable outcome for the judicial system, where Click’s case was competing against those of rapists and murderers for prosecutors’ time and the state’s jail cells. Whether a professor who threatens a student with mob violence should retain her teaching job, however, is another matter.
Click lost her teaching appointment in Missouri’s journalism school, where the other professors did not see beating up reporters as a cornerstone of academic freedom. But she still has her appointment in the university’s communication department. And a lot of other professors want her to keep it.
Click, they wrote, “has been wronged by the media” with all that pesky reporting about her legal troubles. “We believe that her actions on November 9 constitute at most” — at most! — “a regrettable mistake,” they added, in the only line in the letter that comes within a country mile of criticizing her behavior.
Blandly referring to a call for the use of “muscle” against a student journalist as maybe a “regrettable mistake” that is excused by the First Amendment is preposterous on its face. But considered in the context of academic rhetoric these days, it goes well beyond Orwellian.
These are the same professors who talk incessantly of creating “safe spaces” on campus, by which they mean refuges where students won’t have to hear anything that displeases them. Seriously.
At Harvard, this went as far as equipping a room with cookies, coloring books Play-Doh and cute-puppy videos (but none of those sinister kittens!) on the night that libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy was on campus to deliver a speech criticizing the term “rape culture.”
One anguished student told the New York Times that she retreated to the safe space after trying to listen to McElroy’s speech and discovering that, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
And not far from the Missouri campus, at the University of Kansas, a professor is under investigation by the university for using the N-word — during a classroom discussion of race relations — she said she had never seen it spray-painted on a campus wall. Several students in the class promptly warned the college administration that the professor’s observation “creates an unsafe learning space” and was even “terroristic.”
So, that’s the state of linguistics in higher education these days: Speak the wrong idea, or even just the wrong word in a classroom, and you’re guilty of making students feel unsafe. Threaten them with attack by an angry rabble and you’re engaging in a laudable civic demonstration of the First Amendment.