When Justin Kim, CC ’21, attended Columbia University College Republicans’ Tommy Robinson event last October, he anticipated fervent protests but didn’t expect to find himself at the center of the conflict.
“As I was walking up the ramp in Lerner leading into the venue, the protesters inside stopped chanting whatever they were chanting about racism, and then started to yell ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ at me,” Kim said.
According to Kim, he attended the event to try and understand Robinson’s perspective, but was mislabeled by protestors as a supporter of Robinson’s extremist views.
Kim’s experience is emblematic of a larger issue of inhibited speech that was made apparent last semester when CUCR hosted a “free speech month” that brought white supremacists Tommy Robinson and Mike Cernovich to speak at Columbia.
This series of speakers dominated campus discussion and forced students to consider their stance on free speech, revealing a clash between the administration’s endorsement of free speech and calls from some students to ban racist speech in the interest of safety—a tension that student leaders, faculty, and administrators will have to confront in the coming year.
But while students and administrators told Spectator that they saw urgency in discussing the boundaries of free speech—and the University’s role as an incubator of ideas—such debate is largely chilled by a politically correct atmosphere and students’ widespread fear of being labeled as sympathizers of racist ideas.
CUCR’s “free speech month” speakers sparked heavy protests across campus, as hundreds of people from both student organizations and Harlem activist groups gathered to oppose them. Because of the massive security costs incurred by these events, which are covered by student tuition, the Black Students’ Organization called for the Columbia College Student Council to defund CUCR altogether.
Many students admitted to feeling endangered by the the speakers’ islamophobic and bigoted rhetoric, calling for such speakers to be kept away from Columbia.
“They’re trying to protect this scary idea that you have the freedom to be racist, you have the freedom to attack others, you have the freedom to deny another’s existence,” Kashaf Doha, BC ’19, said.
Despite these concerns, University President Lee Bollinger has remained firm in his commitment to the First Amendment.
“We’re simply not going to let the people who are offended by the messages—even reasonably offended by the messages—to stop the speech from happening,” Bollinger said in an interview with Spectator in October. “In protecting them, we strengthen our own skills of argumentation and discourse.”
Though hesitant to express outright support, some students agree with Bollinger’s perspective but fear being associated with the inflammatory views of the speakers.
In one instance, the Columbia University Democrats wrote an op-ed condemning CUCR’s speaker choices but cautioning against protesters “shouting down” these speakers. However, after receiving major backlash for inadvertently opposing activists and downplaying white nationalism, Dems later retracted this statement and apologized.
Over two dozen students who spoke with Spectator cited Columbia’s politically correct culture as a factor in preventing open discourse, creating a stigma that leaves students unable to enter into productive conversation if they don’t share the majority point of view.
“People think you’re either politically correct and you’re liberal, or you’re conservative and you’re evil,” Sam Shih, BC ’20, said.
This culture can hinder conversation both in and out of the classroom. Students have expressed fear of speaking up in class because they might unintentionally offend others, or even have their academic standing called into question, by stating something that is not politically correct.
“The Columbia-Barnard community does lend itself to being a little bit more PC, so people are afraid of making mistakes while learning,” Sara Morales, BC ’21, said in a November interview.
Within the classroom context, the University Senate has sought to alleviate the restrictions of political correctness by drafting a resolution that reaffirms the University’s support for academic freedom of speech. However, after months of debate, the Senate has still been unable to reach a consensus on this resolution due to the unclear definition of an “academic setting.”
Though the resolution was first presented in October, the Senate unanimously agreed to postpone the vote for a third time until the February plenary, showing the difficulty in addressing issues of free speech faced even by the main governing body of the university.
Members of the faculty have also attempted to grapple with the issue. Some expressed similar sentiments as Bollinger, citing the University’s duty to facilitate open conversation, particularly in seminars and discussion sections.
“One of the things I love about higher education is that it should allow a space for students to be radical, to think radical thoughts, imagine radical things, create radically. But it’s also space where you run into others who disagree with you in equally radical ways,” Islamic studies professor Hussein Rashid said.
However, students described being constantly aware of their remarks’ potential to offend. Gabriela Martin, BC ’20, said that, rather than be perceived as sympathetic to racist views, she avoided fully engaging in discussions during her Sociology of African American Life class.
“It was really tricky for me, because I was one of the handful of white students in the class. And it was really hard to speak up, because I never wanted to offend anyone. It was never my intention, but I wanted to learn,” Martin said. “It literally took me months to get to speak up, because I was so nervous, because I didn’t want to be misquoted and misunderstood.”
However, Martin, like other students, still supports politically correct culture and recognizes its value in ensuring students are empathetic and considerate before speaking.
“It’s really intimidating to ask these questions. If you know it’s not malintent, part of learning is making mistakes and picking at things in your brain you need to learn more and explore more about,” Martin said.
Student organizations with oppositional political stances rarely work together to host joint events that integrate and allow for varying viewpoints. Despite Columbia being home to over 40 clubs that fall under the umbrella of politics and activism, only one event was held last semester between organizations of opposing political views, a debate hosted by the Columbia Political Union in September.
“We have all these niche clubs that are acting with a single mindset. We have all these resources. Why not bring them together?” Tina Simpson, BC ’19, said.
Though Columbia’s politically correct environment can prevent students from engaging in conversation, changes in campus culture with the intention of understanding can improve the quality of discussion. Open discourse in which oppositional perspectives are placed in conversation can serve as an effective way of promoting such changes.
“Free speech gives a platform for useful discussion, and restricting what people can say is just going to bury significant issues underground. It’s much better to confront the issue,” Harry Finegold, CC ’21, said.
For its part, CUCR plans to continue bringing conservative speakers onto campus. In the coming months alone, it will invite former members of Trump’s administration including Anthony Scaramucci alongside others that are likely to reignite the controversy of its more recent speakers.