College campuses have created “safe spaces” for all sorts of marginalized groups. But one constituency at Wesleyan University has lost precious real estate, argues The Post's Catherine Rampell. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Women, sexual assault victims, people of color, transgender students. College campuses have created “safe spaces” for all sorts of marginalized groups. But in the process, one member of the campus community has lost precious real estate.

Free speech.

There have of course been complaints about censorship and political correctness on the nation’s campuses for a while now. High-profile speakers — Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice — have been disinvited from or otherwise pushed out of commencement addresses, thanks to students who didn’t want to hear what they had to say. Comedians have sworn off performing at colleges because they say students can’t take a joke.

Even President Obama has decried illiberal tendencies in liberal arts settings, fretting that college students are “coddled and protected from different points of view.”

These threats to free speech peaked this week at Wesleyan University, a top-flight school in Middletown, Conn., where the student government voted to cut funding for the 150-year-old campus newspaper after it published a conservative op-ed.

The Wesleyan Argus student newspaper is displayed Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Michael Melia/AP)

In September, sophomore Bryan Stascavage — a 30-year-old Iraq veteran and self-described “moderate conservative” — wrote an opinion column for the Wesleyan Argus, the student newspaper. In it, he criticized the Black Lives Matter movement — not the movement’s mission or motivations, but its tactics and messaging, particularly those of its more anti-cop fringe elements.

The essay was provocative, but it contained neither name-calling nor racial stereotypes (the usual hallmarks of collegiate column calumny). It was no more radical than the conservative commentary you might see on mainstream op-ed pages such as this one.

That didn’t stop all hell from breaking loose.

Within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told me in a phone interview. Over the following days, he said, others muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.

The Argus’s editors published a groveling apology on the paper’s front page. They said they’d “failed the community” by publishing Stascavage’s op-ed without a counterpoint, and said that it “twist[ed] facts.” They promised to make the paper “a safe space for the student of color community.” This self-flagellation proved insufficient; students circulated a petition to defund the newspaper.

Stascavage had gone to Wesleyan on a scholarship for veterans, and he was aware of the school’s ultra-lefty reputation before his arrival. (It was the inspiration for the 1994 film “PCU,” or “Politically Correct University.”) But he said that reputation didn’t put him off. In fact, he’d specifically sought a community that might challenge his views.

“I knew if I remained in my echo chamber of moderate conservatives, I wouldn’t experience any growth,” he said. “I thought, if I’m around people with extremely liberal ideas, I’ll be constantly challenged and countered, and my views will either change or become sharpened.”

In short, he hoped to have the sort of constructive dialogue that college is supposed to nurture. Instead, he found sparring partners who wanted him silenced.

Discouraged, Stascavage began researching how to transfer to Liberty University, which he thought might prove more hospitable. The conservative campus had just welcomed Bernie Sanders, after all.

But the Wesleyan administration soon reached out and promised that it had his (and the newspaper’s) back; the school’s president even issued a statement titled “Black Lives Matter, and So Does Free Speech.” Note that typically the censorship threats that student journalists face come from authority figures like these school administrators; peer-on-peer muzzling seems to be a relatively new phenomenon, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Still, the outrage raged.

Finally, on Sunday, the student government voted unanimously to halve funding for the newspaper and redistribute the savings among four campus publications (including, possibly, the Argus, subject to a student vote). This measure is allegedly intended to reduce paper waste and promote editorial diversity.

As someone who once wrote inflammatory columns for school newspapers, I find this thinly veiled retribution deeply saddening. Not just for sentimental reasons, and not just because student papers serve an important watchdog function unlikely to be filled by, say, the school music blog.

Crippling the delivery of unpopular views is a terrible lesson to send to impressionable minds and future leaders, at Wesleyan and elsewhere. It teaches students that dissent will be punished, that rather than pipe up they should nod along. It also teaches them they might be too fragile to tolerate words that make them uncomfortable; rather than rebut, they should instead shut down, defund, shred, disinvite.

But the solution to speech that offends should always be more speech, not less.