Contributor, PostEverything

Robert Shibley (Courtesy of FIRE)

Last week, California State University at Fresno President Joseph Castro announced that the university would not punish Professor Randa Jarrar for her tweets expressing pleasure at the death of former first lady Barbara Bush.

A coalition of civil liberties organizations, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I work), the ACLU of Northern California and others had warned the school that it must not proceed with its attack on her free speech and academic freedom rights, and those of Fresno State. The outrage over her remark was unsurprisingly intense, but lawyers ultimately agreed.

One would probably still not enjoy trading places with Professor Jarrar. An online petition to fire her has so far gathered more than 80,000 signatures, the university is facing donor backlash, and threats reportedly poured into a literary event at which she was scheduled to appear.

Although it took some doing, Fresno State was ultimately prevailed upon to respect Jarrar’s right to free expression.

The same isn’t true for other college students and faculty members, who face official punishment from universities that have promised to protect freedom of expression. No fewer than three other events in the last two weeks alone have shown how colleges’ supposed principles are crumbling in the face of outrage.

For example, two weeks ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of tenured Marquette University professor John McAdams, a frequent critic of the university. McAdams was suspended indefinitely for criticizing, naming and linking to the publicly available blog of a graduate student instructor who told a student to refrain from opposing same-sex marriage in her classroom.

Marquette promises academic freedom, but how does that promise have any meaning if it is willing to punish even tenured professors for questioning or engaging in debate about academic topics?

Regardless of what the court decides, the message to other Marquette professors is loud and clear: Criticize the university, or cross the wrong ideological line, and you’ll be next.

Students can find themselves in even more precarious positions when they say controversial things. At California Polytechnic State University, controversy exploded after a photo was posted to Facebook of a student who painted his face and neck black as part of a fraternity event that split students into teams identified by different colors. The student issued a statement abjectly apologizing and saying that he did not understand the implications of blackface. “I wish with all my heart that I had been a member of the blue team,” he wrote.

Cal Poly at first temporarily suspended the fraternity, but then indefinitely suspended all of Greek life after it discovered that another fraternity engaged in “racial profiling and cultural appropriation.” Someone posted to Instagram a picture of three members dressed in tank tops and bandannas and referring to themselves as “la familia.”

Members of a Syracuse University engineering fraternity might lose their education altogether, as last week 18 of them were banned from attending classes and face possible expulsion after someone leaked video clips from a private Facebook group of them “roasting” other members through purposely offensive and embarrassing skits. The skits featured racial slurs, sexual gestures and mocking depictions of members as being homosexual or disabled.

The Syracuse students were hit with charges including disorderly conduct, lewd behavior and threatening “the mental health or safety of anyone” — but only after the clips were posted online, weeks after the roast took place. There is no indication that anyone actually present at the event complained or was offended. Five of the accused students are now suing Syracuse, three of whom are themselves members of minority groups. One plaintiff, an African American, wrote in his affidavit, “No one watching these performances in context could possibly have interpreted them as anything other than what they were — satirical portrayals of offensive conduct and attitudes offered for entertainment with no intent to harm or harass anyone.”

It’s not the outrage that is remarkable. People are entitled to be outraged.

Likewise, people are entitled to disagree about what these campus headlines say about our culture and politics.

What is remarkable is the “I am shocked, shocked!” response of college authorities in each of these situations, when there is literally nothing about which they could possibly be surprised.

Barbara Bush is a racist? Some argue that all white people are necessarily racist, not just the Bush family. George W. Bush is a war criminal? Searching the phrase turns up more than 3 million Google results.

College students engaged in tasteless humor or displayed ignorance about history?

It’s hard to imagine that there is an American alive who has graduated from college and is truly surprised about any of this. Yet these examples are seized upon by administrators as excuses to exert more and more control over the minds of others.

Universities claim that they value free expression and academic freedom. But, as Jon Stewart memorably said, “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: They’re hobbies.” If colleges are to serve their purpose in a free society, the decisions must be made by principled professionals — not hobbyists.

Robert Shibley is the executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.