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The Carletonian

Free speech and academic freedom with Professors Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder

“Free expression is always under threat, it just varies by degrees,” Professor Jeff Snyder said near the beginning of last week’s talk “Free Expression and Academic Freedom Under Fire: Campus Censorship from the War on Woke Indoctrination to the War in Gaza.”

On Wednesday, Apr. 17, Associate Professor of history, Amna Khalid and Associate Professor of Educational Studies, Jeff Snyder gave a talk for the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) National Day of Action for Higher Ed. The AAUP is an organization dedicated to protecting academic freedom at colleges and universities. Associate professor of statistics Andy Poppick, the vice president of Carleton’s chapter of the AAUP, explained that the purpose of the National Day of Action was to discuss threats to higher education and democracy from “both outside academia and from within academia.”

Professor of history Bill North, the president of Carleton’s chapter of the AAUP, along with Poppick, introduced the speakers, explaining that the purpose of the talk was to discuss academic freedom. Snyder began the talk with an important disclaimer: neither he nor Khalid was speaking on behalf of the AAUP, and their views should not be considered representative of the Carleton chapter.

The room, Olin 141, was filled, with people standing in the back and at the sides. Khalid and Snyder are both known for their work on free speech. They were fellows at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement last year, where they focused on Florida’s legislative threats to academic freedom. Since then, they have published a variety of articles in “The Chronicle of Higher Education” and other sources, and spoken at various academic events.

Their study of academic freedom has led them on a winding road of subjects, including academic freedom, free speech, DEI initiatives and trigger warnings, among others.

The talk began with an explanation of why free expression matters. According to Snyder, “severe and pervasive” threats from inside and outside academia


harm higher education’s goal of making citizens by damaging free expression, which is necessary for critical thinking. Snyder cited Carleton’s mission statement, which says that “Carleton’s academic goals focus on developing the critical and creative talents of our students through broad and rigorous studies in the liberal arts disciplines. Mentored by dedicated faculty and staff, students become active members of a learning and living community that promotes the exploration of passionate interests and emerging avocations. Students learn higher order thinking skills: disciplinary inquiry, analysis of evidence, arts of communication and argumentation and problem-solving strategies.”

“Often, the education process is risky,” said Snyder. “[And], free expression makes [academic journeys] possible.”

Snyder and Khalid explained that threats to education come from all directions. One threat they particularly focused on was the threat that comes from the idea of intellectual safety. “State legislators, administrators, overzealous students [and] wealthy donors [censor to provide intellectual safety,]” said Khalid, explaining that this is part of the approach where some ideas are deemed so harmful that they must be banished.

“There’s something galling about the fact that we’re here on our college campuses, talking about a discourse of harm, when we actually have lives being lost and children being shot and people dying in not one part of the world, but many parts of the world,” Khalid told the Carletonian. “So this dissonance I feel between us talking about how we need protection from ideas is really jarring.”

A core theme of the talk was that people on both sides of the political spectrum use protectionist language to justify limits on academic freedom. In states such as Florida and Alabama, this comes from state-run initiatives such as anti Critical Race Theory (CRT) legislation. In more liberal spaces, that comes from what Snyder and Khalid refer to as “DEI Inc.” — a corporatized form of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that relies on “trainings” and “indoctrination” rather than educating students.

Differentiating DEI Inc. from other forms of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion was a central theme of the talk. Snyder and Khalid noted that they are in favor of diversity, inclusion and equity as values. Snyder explained that “many [DEI] initiatives are vital” with examples of the “many worthwhile initiatives,” including focuses on the recruitment and retention of students and faculty from underrepresented populations, as well as academic support through programs such as POSSE, TRIO and an early intervention program.

Snyder also mentioned, however, that “all [major DEI initiatives] include provisions that run counter to higher ed’s mission.” He explained that a key difference between DEI and DEI Inc. is that DEI Inc. is “steeped in a discourse of harm” because it “erases distinctions” between psychological discomfort and physical safety. For example, to prevent harm to students, Barnard recently banned all posters on dorm room doors, reducing both students’ potential for harm and their potential for expression.

He argued that DEI Inc’s “diversity statements and trainings” are ideological and run counter to higher ed’s mission to promote open inquiry and critical thinking. The problem, Snyder explained, is that DEI Inc. portrays diversity as a “customer service issue” needing to be handled from the top down, rather than needing to be addressed more holistically.

Khalid expanded on the consumerist analogy, explaining that DEI Inc. portrays “education as a product” — as part of that, consulting companies have become increasingly important and often set DEI goals based on quantitative measures. This has also been worsened by a trend of an increasing number of administrators at universities, which makes them run more bureaucratically. Yale, for example, has one administrator per student: instead of money going into faculty, Khalid observed, it is now going into administration.

According to Khalid, DEI Inc. is ideological to the extent that “left of center” views and “identitarian ‘progressive’ positions” cannot be questioned. (Khalid specified that “progressive” in that context should have scare quotes because this form of politics ignores the effects of class and economic inequality).

Khalid cited an incident at Hamline University last year as a “perfect storm of all the worst aspects of DEI Inc.”

Last October, an adjunct professor at Hamline University showed an image of the prophet Muhammad after warning students and offering to let students miss the class because many Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad should not be viewed in images. After a Muslim student told the college administration she was upset, the professor was fired for Islamophobia. According to Khalid, the president of Hamline said at the time that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

Khalid argued against that idea in the talk, explaining that determining academic freedom and its limits requires expertise. She also noted that Hamline erased the diversity of opinions among the Muslim community, which in itself is a form of “essentialism” and “stereotyping.” (Khalid previously published on this subject in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” and hosted a panel discussion at Carleton about it).

That incident also got at one of the other issues that Snyder and Khalid see as a threat to academic freedom: trigger warnings. “If you’re a historian and you’re not teaching disturbing, controversial, sensitive materials, you’re not doing your job at the college level,” said Snyder.

When students first started asking for trigger warnings, Snyder explained, “I asked students ‘is this just a heads up or do you think that students should be able to opt out’ and more and more people said you should be able to opt out of material with trigger warnings… Once I heard that, I was alarmed because it would place all of the vital teaching on this campus about sensitive or controversial topics at risk.”

“[Students] assume that there will be an alternative way to get into [the material] and the fact of the matter is that most professors won’t bother with that,” said Khalid. “When students ask for trigger warnings the most likely outcome is that professors will just drop the topic from their syllabi. I have talked to dozens of instructors across the country who have done just that.”

The other example Khalid cited as highlighting the problems of DEI Inc. was at the University of California, Berkeley. She explained that the University of California system requires a diversity statement for hiring; the scoring system, she argued, had “ideological” components, such as marking down faculty candidates who endorsed “colorblind” statements such as “I believe in treating all students the same regardless of background.” At UC Berkeley, applicants were screened and filtered out based on their diversity statements before their academic credentials were even looked at, which is an example of DEI Inc. taking precedence over education.

Khalid and Snyder also critiqued DEI and anti-racism trainings. According to Snyder, the logic of DEI Inc. says that you need safe spaces for everyone at all times, which is based on principles of neoliberalism and antiracism based on Ibram X. Kendi’s New York Times 2020 bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist.” Snyder explained that Kendi’s book portrays racial justice as a light switch, in which people are either racist or not racist, with no room in between. DEI Inc.’s training, he said, relies on an “approach where one cannot ask questions or challenge underlying assumptions” which “is not conducive to learning.” Snyder continued that they “fill 60 minutes but are devoid of substantive content.”
Another issue Snyder raised with DEI Inc. training was that if people feel bored when talking about something as complex and interesting as diversity, it’s a sign that it isn’t being done right. In an interview with the Carletonian, he explained that “topics relating to race, racism, social inequality, prejudice [and] discrimination are so important that they should not be relegated or tokenized to this very narrow realm of training.” He noted that outside of “talking about technical expertise that has clear right and wrong answers…training doesn’t have any role whatsoever on a college campus.”

“If we could eliminate racism and bias through an hour long training, sign me up,” said Snyder. “I’ll be the first person there. But that’s not how the world works. And that’s not how college should work.”

Snyder told the Carletonian: “I think diversity is…one of the most important values to me professionally and personally. But mandatory anti-racism training does nothing to promote real diversity, deep understanding or genuine empathy. The overwhelming consensus in the research literature is that mandatory diversity trainings do more harm than good.”

Khalid summarized the problem: trainings prioritize “compliance” over “education”; they are “performative” instead of “transformative.” Instead of teaching DEI through trainings, Khalid proposed an alternate method: educating students through faculty-led workshops and hosting open sessions — essentially educating students using “the intellectual capital on our own campus.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, Khalid and Snyder also saw threats to academic freedom and free speech.

Florida, Khalid explained, is currently ground zero for “educational gag orders” on race, gender, American history and LGBTQ+ history with the Stop Woke Act, which Khalid and Snyder filed an amicus brief against last year. This act was modeled on Executive Order 13950 “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which was passed by President Donald Trump in Sep. 2020 and revoked by President Joseph Biden in Jan. 2021. That executive order banned teaching certain “divisive concepts” to federal and military employees and federal contractors, as well banning funding the teaching of those concepts. Those “divisive concepts” include, among other things, that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist” — in practice, this bans discussing systemic racism. Khalid also included that it bans talk of affirmative action and white privilege. Florida’s Stop Woke Act was based on this Executive Order, but applied to educational materials and invited speakers as well.

The Stop Woke Act, Khalid said, has a “chilling effect” on professors, especially untenured professors and professors of humanities and interpretative social sciences. The act isn’t unique: Alabama recently passed SB129, which cut all funding for DEI initiatives at the University of Alabama and required that every multiple occupancy restroom on a public university campus “be designated for use by individuals based on their biological sex.” These bills restrict what professors can teach, and in particular, limit what they can teach about the history of racism in the United States. Snyder added that this is part of a larger “anti intellectual current” in red states that attacks the humanities in particular.

The third issue Khalid and Snyder brought up that runs counter to the purpose of higher education is restrictions on protest and thus students’ free speech.

Snyder explained that the right to protest is vital to democracy and that students won that right back in the 1960s on college campuses. Free speech requires “scrutiny and analysis” of ideas that cannot be done without opposition — an idea that goes back to John Stuart Mill. But, speech, he argued, is more than the right to talk into a void. “Speech assumes an audience,” Snyder said — it includes both the right to speak and the right to be heard. He clarified that the right to free speech does not entail the heckler’s veto. While students should have the right to protest there are certain time, place and manner restrictions that need to be observed.

But, those acceptable limitations have their own limits. Where classes should have “civil discourse” and discussions guided by professors rather than “no holds barred speech,” Snyder said, public spaces need “room for passion…and provocation” rather than civility mandates.

According to Snyder, American University recently changed its campus policy about protests by banning indoor protests, and mandating that all posters need to be “welcoming” and “build community.” Other universities also tightened their rules governing student protests and organizations; at least three universities have outright banned Students for Justice in Palestine. He emphasized that colleges need to take antisemitism seriously, but that allegations of antisemitism should not be weaponized to ban any criticism of the state of Israel.

“I’m appalled by the way [Columbia] is cracking down on students,” said Khalid. “[and] the way they got police in. They first suspended the students, making them trespassers and then called the police…[And] the president has made a fool of herself in these hearings…She is not standing up for academic freedom.”

“The way Congress has hauled these leaders in to hold them to account is very worrying to me because it’s an attack on the autonomy of colleges and universities,” said Snyder.

“Claims of harm from speech cannot and should not justify censorship,” said Khalid, bringing up a series of questions about what harmful speech consists of. In one example, Khalid questioned whether teaching evolution might be considered harmful to creationists. She said that students need to learn to be tolerant, rather than to only hear speech they agree with. Whether restrictions come from conservatives or the left, she said, students’ “freedom to learn” is violated.

When asked by the Carletonian about the state of free speech and academic freedom on Carleton’s campus, Khalid started: “Carleton is not cracking down on free speech, like other institutions right now,” because Carleton isn’t limiting protest or other forms of student expression.

But, on the subject of free speech, there’s also the question of what students feel they can express. “We’ve started doing a poll in every class of asking our students how comfortable they feel saying things that they think they should be able to say on campus, like expressing their political opinions, and the vast majority, if not all of the students, raise their hands and they say they do not feel comfortable,” explained Khalid. “I think, in terms of the campus climate…there’s an orthodoxy on campus… And I think a lot of this is coming from students, it’s peer driven, to conform to the accepted view.”

“There are indirect ways in which signals are being sent that reduce the scope for dissent and unorthodox views on this campus, such as these trainings,” Khalid said. “I think they narrow what are acceptable points of view and they do have a chilling impact on discussions on campus…We know that the majority of students lean liberal/left, and yet the majority say that they don’t feel comfortable voicing their views, so that means the range of acceptable points of view on campus is very narrow.”


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Becky Reinhold
Becky Reinhold, Editor in Chief
I'm a junior Philosophy major, and I can usually be found in the basement of Anderson or wandering around Northfield. I like thunderstorms and writing articles around 2am. Becky was previously Managing Editor, Viewpoint Editor, and Design Editor.

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