Remembering a Campus Free Speech Fight

On June 10, 2018, Doug Bennet, a historian, political aide, assistant secretary in the State Department, former president of National Public Radio and—most importantly to me—president of Wesleyan University, died at the age of 79. It’s rare that you see someone bring such a rich background to the executive office of a liberal arts college, but after a lifetime as a Washington mover and shaker, Doug—an alumnus—decided to make our campus the last stop of a career devoted to public service.

Doug had a great sense of humor: I considered him, and his wife Midge, to be friends. In 1997, when I was receiving the university teaching award at graduation, I burst into tears as I approached the stage . He looked—as any good WASP would—horrified. “I’m sorry,” I whispered as I took the award. “My father is dying and I wish he were here to see this.” At which point, Doug pulled me in for a long hug as the students cheered. Later, at a low point in my career, he helped me in a way we always hope people in authority will, but rarely do. I will never forget it.

Doug’s obituary in The New York Times noted that his presidency was “not without controversies.” While that is true, I honestly can’t remember any of them, except the one that is mentioned in the article. On October 3, 2003, after a few tense months, Doug sent an email to the campus declaring a moratorium on chalking political statements on the sidewalks around campus. A liberal, in the pre-1990 sense of the word, Doug had taken this stance because the struggle between queer students, whose chalkings had picked up on the highly sexual ACT UP zeitgeist, and counterchalkings by offended students, had escalated dramatically. If you are interested in the details of that controversy, as I understood them a few years later, you can read an article I wrote about it that was uploaded here.

In the 2012 interview below, done by my former student Zach Schonfeld, now a senior writer at Newsweek, I talked about the complexities of this free speech controversy. What is astonishing to me in retrospect is how our disagreements about free speech cut across political lines on the faculty, with liberals, radicals, and conservatives finding themselves allies against, and in support, of the moratorium (which has not been lifted, fifteen years later).

I republish this interview about it today as a tribute to my respect for Doug Bennet, to our friendship, but also to a moment in history when speaking across our differences often led to greater, not less, respect for each other. Doug was a man of great character, conviction and decency.

I will miss him.

ZS: What was the role of chalking on campus when you first arrived at Wesleyan? How did you feel about it?

CP: The purpose of chalking in its early years was to get a message out to the community quickly and concisely, often in an interrogatory form that provoked or encouraged the reader to think outside of the box. That “box” for Wesleyan was that the campus was a diverse and open community where racial and sexual minorities were accepted and happy. As a queer faculty member I was well aware that students who had come into the community under this assumption struggled with bigotry, usually as individuals. So to the extent that chalking reflected a kind of collective action on the part of students, and before we used the term, a form of civic engagement, I was enthusiastic about it. And I do think that it is important to say that chalking was relatively uncontroversial for many years when it functioned mostly as a form of community formation, group bonding, and visibility. Some faculty, and some students, resented it. Despite that, the administration thought it was best left alone, and I think this was wise.

ZS: From a faculty perspective, at what point did you become aware of administrative displeasure with chalking?

CP: Administrative displeasure with chalking was linked to the escalation of verbal violence used by chalkers, and a shift from the declarative to the transitive. You know, it went from “I’m gay, Mom!” to “I fucked your Mom!” From “I love blow jobs!” to “I gave your Dad/roommate/brother/son a blow job!” So I would have to say that administrators were not alone in their concerns: university support staff were distressed at what they regarded as intimidating obscenities in their workplace. Faculty who supported chalking were concerned at the turn things were taking, and one of my conservative female colleagues—who had publicly opposed chalking—began receiving pornography through an anonymous email account. Really. Not. Cool.

ZS: How did that progress to the moratorium?

For the rest of this post, published at Public Seminar on June 27, 2014, click here.

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