Columbia Law Student Senate Censors To Prevent Censorship

College Students Aren’t The Biggest Problem, But Sometimes They’re Bad And Should Feel Bad.

University students are not the greatest threat to American liberty.

That sounds obvious, but you might not know if you listened to popular discourse about universities. Universities, we’re told, are hotbeds of ruthless woke kulturkampf, indoctrinating students into far-left ideology and giving them an unslakable thirst for censorship that will be unleashed on America upon their graduation. This is not a new moral panic — there was one about “political correctness” like it when I was in college, back in the last millennium — but it’s noisy and omnipresent.

I dissent for several reasons. First, and most importantly, the greatest threat to American freedom of speech comes from our elected leaders — leaders who pass shamefully pandering laws restricting campus speech, leaders who normalize and encourage performative and cynical defamation cases against political enemies, leaders who abuse government power to suppress dissent, leaders who convey through the force of law that dissent is illegitimate and un-American. Sometimes those leaders are university administrators. Trying to focus our attention on college students whose power to suppress is much more temporary and limited in scope is a dangerous misdirection.

Second, a substantial part of the tumult about university students is right-wing kayfabe. The hostility towards students is often hostility against a set of values most popular with students — views about ethnic diversity, gender, and sexuality. I am unconvinced that the loudest voices angrily denouncing students sincerely believe in freedom of conscience and expression. I think they hate the students for their values.

So we shouldn’t make university students the scapegoat for America’s political and cultural woes. On the other hand, we shouldn’t condescend to them, infantilize them, or fail to speak forthrightly when they are wrong. Sometimes students are insufferably censorial. We should ask them to do better.

This is one of those times. The crucible of wrongness is the Gaza conflict, as has so often been the case recently.

At Columbia Law School, students who want their organization officially recognized must be approved by the Student Senate, and you spotted the problem already, didn’t you? In the last year one group out of nine applicants has been denied — Law Students Against Antisemitism. By an anonymous vote, the Columbia Law Student Senate rejected them. They’re controversial because they subscribe to a definition of antisemitism offered by the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This, student senators thought, was unfair and potentially suppressive of anti-Zionist speech:

There were two main complaints raised before and during the senate meeting about Law Students Against Antisemitism: that the organization would suppress speech and that the alliance’s definition conflated antisemitism with anti-Zionism.

Now, Columbia Law’s students are perfectly right to be vigilant about attempts to suppress criticism of Israel. Plenty of people of bad faith have been trying to disguise suppression of anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian thought as concern about antisemitism. Colleges have been complicit and sometimes students are the ones advocating suppression.

But Columbia Law’s Student Senate is being fuzzy-headed at best, and acting at bad faith at worst, to say that a student group shouldn’t be approved if its values and viewpoints could lead to censorship if widely accepted, or that its definition of racism is wrong. A newly formed Law Students Against Antisemitism would only be able to add one additional voice — a student voice — into the incendiary debate about Israel. Their definition of antisemitism is subject to critique, like everybody else’s. They would have no official power to enforce it, only the power to associate with each other and speak their views. Their power to argue that some criticism of Israel is antisemitic is no more powerful — and no less a legitimate part of the debate — than Students for Justice In Palestine saying that it isn’t.

I also question whether the supposed logic is sincere. Would the Columbia Law Student Senate deny recognition to, say, the Black Law Students Association, on the basis that students from that group have sometimes called for the punishment of speech they perceive as bigoted? Somehow I think not; nor should they.

So does the Columbia Law Student Senate think that it’s necessary to stop speech to save it? Possibly. It’s the sort of philosophical fatuity that students have always eructed. Realistically, though, it’s more likely that these particular students think that when they don’t agree with speech, it’s legitimate to suppress that speech by any means at their disposal, including official and quasi-official means. It’s more likely that they think they have some kind of right not to be exposed to speech they hate. They see no value in the utterance of things unless they agree with those things, and don’t share the value that they should respond to speech rather than preventing it. I feel no obligation whatsoever to respect that sentiment or the students who hold it, as I’ve made clear before. And I am perfectly capable of regarding them as censorial dipshits while recognizing that they are also mostly insignificant censorial dipshits, compared to our nation’s leaders.

The fact that Columbia Law is private, and not bound by the First Amendment, does not change this analysis. Columbia advertises itself as a haven for free expression. If Columbia law wants to be free for expression that its Student Senate agrees with, maybe it should say that on the package. The belief “there is only one correct way to view the conflict in Gaza and we will not recognize student organizations who disagree” is loathsome and un-American whether or not it violates the First Amendment.

I think the students could do better. In fact I expect it of them. I expect students at one of America’s best law schools to say “I think your definition of antisemitism is overbroad and wrong, but you get to advocate it just like other groups do.” I hope that age and experience will rub the censorial dipshittery off of them. But all of this may mark me as naive. Has the America of this century provided a good example of the value of liberty? Have these students’ local and national leaders modeled a mature and civically responsible approach to encountering speech they don’t like? Likely no.

Finally, though I was initially inclined to call them cowards for voting anonymously to suppress speech, after some thought I repented. Any vote on this subject is likely to expose them to death threats encouraged by bad actors. That’s not an appropriate or proportional response to censorial dipshittery.

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