The “Chilling” Effect
Florida’s tenured radicals say that my reporting is making them “nervous.” Good.
My recent reporting on radical DEI programming in state universities, which helped pave the way for the abolition of those programs by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has apparently made left-wing academics in Florida’s public universities nervous.
Last week, University of Central Florida professor Robert Cassanello told the Tampa Bay Times that his colleagues are terrified of being exposed publicly. “They’re changing their classes or they’re not assigning books they would normally assign out of fear that if that stuff gets published that Chris Rufo is going to come and target them and tweet about them and they’ll be in the crosshairs,” Cassanello said.
The following day, I received an email from a producer of the NPR program This American Life informing me that professors at Florida State University, whose DEI program I had exposed in an investigative report, were “nervous about being called out online for the content of their classes.” Furthermore, these academics apparently believed that my public criticism of one of their colleagues, sociologist Shantel Buggs, could have “endangered that professor.”
The specifics of my investigative report are worth mentioning. I devoted just two sentences to Buggs—neither of which referenced her by name—pointing out that she had taught a course titled “Critical Race Theory,” in which she promoted fringe ideological content such as “Whiteness as Pathological Narcissism” and told her students that they should “not let the constraints of the discipline stop you from being the radical you want to be.” In the original source documents, I attached the syllabus for her course to give readers a complete citation.
The FSU professors seem to want it both ways. They encourage students to pursue left-wing radicalism but wilt at the slightest criticism of their instruction—which, it should be pointed out, is subsidized by Florida taxpayers and, as such, is part of the public domain. According to the NPR reporter, however, the FSU professors were particularly outraged that Dr. Buggs’s name was not redacted from the documents, thus exposing her to harmful counter-opinion.
There are two issues at play here, one farcical, the other far-reaching. First, this situation exposes the utter fraud of academic radicals. On campus, they praise one another for their heroic resistance. But they are not the revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be; they are taxpayer-funded agents of the state, backed by the prestige of the university and a massive administrative bureaucracy. Yet, when pressed into the public debate—that is, into politics—they immediately cry foul and take refuge in a therapeutic posture.
As in any good farce, a serious issue lurks beneath the surface. It is not simply that professors are incapable of handling criticism—this has been true for a long while. It is that they are demanding the suppression of criticism altogether, under the rationale that it makes them fearful, violates their academic freedom, and “chills” their speech.
These arguments are empty. The First Amendment recognizes their freedom of speech, as it does that of all Americans, but it does not entitle them to public deference or immunize them from criticism. Public university professors, in particular, are engaged in public discourse and, as such, their ideas must be submitted to debate and scrutiny. If Cassanello, Buggs, and their colleagues are too fearful to engage in this debate, they should assess their own standards, not demand that others accommodate them. Scholarship without the possibility of robust criticism isn’t scholarship at all—it’s propaganda.
Finally, to those tenured radicals who argue that my reporting has chilled their speech, I say: good. This is a normal, salutary part of public life. Ideas get exposed to criticism, and, if revealed as false or antithetical to the body politic, their purveyors ought to feel some desire to change.
The alternative to this situation is much worse. Critical race theorists have long proposed another solution, namely, that “words that wound” be banished from the public square in the interest of advancing left-wing intersectionality. In practice, this would mean that private citizens, journalists, and social commentators could no longer criticize the ideology and operation of the state and public institutions—such as universities.
What is more American that the right of the people to criticize? And what happens if, in order to protect the sensitivities of the academic class, that right is denied?
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Originally published in City Journal.