Last week, American University agreed to remove a statue from its prominent position outside the Katzen Arts Center in Washington D.C. after protests over the statue’s appropriateness. I know what you’re thinking. Another liberal crusade against free speech on campus. But this time the protests came from an entirely different source—the FBI.
In a bizarre twist on the recent wave of crackdowns on campus free speech, the FBI sent a letter to the president of AU requesting the removal of a statue of Leonard Peltier, an activist for the American Indian Movement who was convicted of killing two FBI agents in the 1970s. The university agreed to acquiesce to the FBI’s request, stating that they are doing so in order to protect the art as well as ensure the safety of the community.
This incident is a reminder that repression of and threats to free speech can come from any direction—not just the left. No one is immune to the temptation to demand censorship of things that offend them.
The majority of such requests on U.S. college campuses have come from Black Lives Matter and other similar movements, which have sought the removal of Civil War statuary, as well as monuments to and statues of anyone who was a slave owner. Rather than educate the public with plaques that contextualize the history of the person in question and the placement of the statue, these groups prefer a revisionist approach.
AU may have fallen into the same trap, by distributing a one-sided press release at the time of the statue’s unveiling that highlights the clemency effort calling for a pardon for Peltier and states that its intention is to “raise awareness of Peltier’s plight.” But even so, university sponsored political activism is hardly newsworthy.
What is surprising about this case is that it reveals universities are willing to cave in to requests not just from progressive crusaders. By caving to the FBI, AU demonstrated a non-partisan spinelessness when it comes to free speech.
This case is also worrisome, because the request came from a government agency. Regardless of the fact that the FBI may be right that erecting a statue of this man is in poor taste, its entreaty could be interpreted as an inherent threat. Even if this isn’t what the authors of the letter intended, it sets a dangerous precedent. State actors ought not be in the business of influencing speech on campus.
Of course, the FBI stated in their letter that “[We are] committed to protecting the Constitution, and we appreciate the right to free expression. However, with that right comes a responsibility to consider the consequences of speech.”
We should always be concerned when someone says they support free speech and follows that statement with “however.” Yes, speech carries with it consequences. But there are also consequences to suppressing that speech. And the latter is far more dangerous.
So, in 2017, beware of campus censorship from all directions—Left, Right, and from the government.