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With speech under a microscope, I’m afraid to teach

What once was dismissed as just a dumb statement or simple ignorance is now magnified into DEFCON one piling on, with escalating demands for the limbs, if not the heads, of the perpetrators. Proportion and context are buried in a cyber cascade of outrage.

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School in Philadelphia, where the bounds of tenure and free speech protections on campus are being debated, March 2. A conflict over a law professor at the university has stirred questions about what tenure means.HANNAH YOON/NYT

After years of teaching Media Law and Ethics and other journalism courses, my pedagogical instincts kick in when I hear of attacks on speech or the press, whether from the purist left or the authoritarian-leaning right. One such teachable moment came in Haverhill when an angry mob shut down a controversial speaker, prompting one commentator to bemoan “a growing tendency in this free land to interfere with the … public presentation of certain questions concerning which a class in the community had violent prejudices.”

Those words appeared more than a century ago in Liberty Magazine, which wrote about a planned April 2, 1916, speech by Dr. Thomas Leyden, who supported an amendment to bar state funding of parochial schools. Irate by what they saw as this anti-Catholic stance by an anti-Catholic torch bearer, 10,000 protesters forced Leyden to flee. It was just one example of America’s long history of easily aggrieved groups and overzealous reactions against contrary views.


Even — or especially — at universities, pressure to conform has often prevailed over principle. “If you opposed America’s entry into World War I, the president of Columbia [University] would have your desk on the lawn the next day,” notes former Tufts University provost Sol Gittleman, whose book about the history of American higher education comes out this summer (disclosure: I helped edit it). “We go through these things periodically.”

What is different today is not just the extent of campus hypersensitivities but the speed, scope, and ferocity with which offended (justified or not) parties can use social media or other outlets to vent their anger — whether it’s the take-no-prisoners left or the snowflake right that sees books with gender-positive portrayals or strong Black characters as threats to the American way. Maybe my geezerhood is showing, but what makes “ladies” as a salutation some kind of microaggression?


What once was dismissed as just a dumb statement or simple ignorance is now magnified into DEFCON 1 piling on, with escalating demands for the limbs — if not the heads — of the perpetrators. Proportion and context are buried in a cyber cascade of outrage.

All of which would give me pause about teaching again (not that anyone is asking). Because many of my students sought careers in journalism, where a thick skin helps, I took a newsroom-like approach to my teaching, challenging incomplete answers and raising tough questions. Readings and discussions covered a wide range, from Supreme Court decisions to current and sometimes sensitive topics. In one hypothetical cold case (i.e., they had no advance notice), students get a police report that nooses have just been found hanging from trees all across campus. Predictably, in their real-time role play, the student “reporters” assumed that racists were behind the action. Their questions to administrators, as well as the stories they posted in real time, focused on calls for public condemnations and demands for the apprehension and severe punishment of the perpetrators. But then came the “oops” twist: The nooses were in fact hung by Black campus activists seeking attention to ongoing racial problems on campus. Still want them arrested?

Students liked the case. It required them to inquire and write about a tricky situation. It demonstrated the dangers of reporting based on assumptions and preconceptions rather than hard evidence. It was an effective learning tool — but given that it evokes nooses and lynching, would I dare use it in this era of trigger warnings and self-censorship by students and faculty alike? I miss teaching and robust interaction with students, but today’s classroom can be an occupational hazard zone.


Students should be informed, engaged with the world, angered by injustice, and committed to action. But intolerance is contrary to both democracy and learning. Fortunately, some campus balance may be returning. In April, for example, Cornell University administrators rejected a student resolution that would have required faculty to provide trigger warnings about classroom content that students could consider “traumatic …. including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, xenophobia.” Such a policy, top officials said, would “infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry.”

Good for Cornell. But I suspect the sentiment that drove that student resolution still prevails on many campuses. And if I ever teach again, I want to be walking to a podium, not on egg shells.

Phil Primack, a Medford-based writer, has taught writing and journalism courses at Northeastern University, Tufts University, Boston University, and Babson College, among other institutions.