New Yorker writer and Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb speaks on free speech and polarization on college campuses

Author, writer and educator Jelani Cobb discusses “Speech On and Off Campus” with Associate Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Anna Branch. (Rebirth Project/Brie Bristol)

By Ethan Bakuli and Brie Bristol

On Tuesday Feb. 5, University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Office of Equity and Inclusion presented  “Understanding the Forces that Drive Us Apart: A Symposium on Polarization” as an daylong event allowing participants “to understand the history and dynamics of social polarization.”

The symposium, hosted in the Campus Center Auditorium, featured a conversation between Jelani Cobb, New Yorker staff writer and Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, and UMass Associate Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Enobong (Anna) Branch discussing freedom of speech on college campuses.

“Colleges have been accused of producing snowflakes, when attempting to balance free speech considerations against protecting target groups from hostility and harassment. College students are increasingly unwilling to tolerate hateful or protected speech,” said Branch as she introduced the talk.

“Now more than ever it’s especially important that we foster an environment where we can exchange ideas, seek understanding, and at times, respectfully disagree,” she continued.

Recently, UMass has been no stranger to discussions over free speech and issues around diversity. In December of 2018, news broke over social media and national outlets of a controversial email sent by a Residential Life staff member disproving a student’s anti-Nazi sign hanging from his window. This, alongside student protests at a talk by former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and marches against hate crimes last fall has left faculty, staff, and students curious about what inclusion on campus really means.

Cobb was quick to highlight his time speaking and teaching at numerous college campuses throughout the country, and how, despite popular opinion, college students are no more polarized than the rest of the nation.

“We treat college campuses as if they are a kind of geographic asterisk, you know. That there are these particular places that don’t have any relationship to the world,” said Cobb.

“But in other places we find there to be boundaries around speech that none of us push back on.”

What particularly stood out to Cobb about college campuses were often the conversations had by black students about feeling alienated by their peers. In a 2015 article for the New Yorker, Cobb wrote about the responses by campus administration and students at the University of Missouri and Yale University after racist incidents occurred.

“The default for avoiding discussion of racism is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights,” wrote Cobb at the time.

In Cobb’s argument, behind student protesters’ actions against university administrators were legitimate concerns over campus environments lacking an understanding of the nation’s racist past and present. He connected the conversation to recent controversy around Virginia governor Ralph Northam and attorney general Mark Herring both found to be wearing blackface at college parties. Recent instances of racist caricatures and imagery fall within a history of minstrelsy and racial violence.

“Minstrelsy simply didn’t happen as a form of ridicule, it happened as a form of entertainment that coincided with rituals and festivals of murder and homicide. When black people were being killed, this was the entertainment that coincided with it,” Cobb said.

College campuses, like most institutions and workplaces, have become an “unregulated marketplace of ideas” where students and faculties interactions with one another in classrooms and residential halls dictates the rules and regulations of free speech.

“The argument in favor of having an open, ‘say whatever you want’ culture is that we’re given a free market of ideas. That everything is a marketplace of ideas and the market will sort it out because if there is a bad idea, people will say ‘No, that’s a bad idea,” Cobb said.

Cobb further described UMass Amherst as being a free market of ideas because the community has enrolled and employed “vulnerable categories of people, individuals and groups that have been subject to the worst that this country has done.”

Audience members followed up the discussion asking about the role of ethnic studies departments in diversifying ideas and people on campuses, the co-opting of progressive movements by police officers such as Blues Lives Matter, and freedom of speech in comedy.

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