“Hey, Hey, Ho Ho! Ben Sasse has got to go!”
The chant begins afar, faint and rhythmic, somewhere out on the humid, Spanish moss–draped campus. It drifts into the conference room on the second floor of the University of Florida’s Emerson Alumni Hall. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, clad in a de rigueur blue suit, sits at a table before about 100 students and answers their questions, many of which the faculty has asked in a meeting in the same room during the previous hour.
Sasse is the sole finalist to be the college’s next president, and since the vetting process was not transparent, and since his appointment smells of political influence, he seems to have arrived on campus prepared for hostility on this sunny, early October day. Students ask about his past opposition to gay marriage and abortion, and Sasse offers up a tech-bro word salad about how entrepreneurial the University of Florida is. He vows to study “metrics” to ensure “inclusivity.” He salutes what he describes as “more capital flows into Florida in the last three years than to any place in all of human history,” a sly nod to Governor Ron DeSantis’s success in attracting big Northern money to his balmy tax haven.
Students ask him about the efforts by DeSantis and Florida Republicans to curb “woke” campus speech. Sasse says he doesn’t know “the particulars” of the legislation, even though court cases filed by public university faculty from across the state have made The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education and have been sources of enormous controversy.
The chanting moves ever closer. Shaded windows mute the midday sun that is frying Gainesville, but not the noise of the crowd. It is a little like the approaching giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Closer. Closer. Now it’s coming up the curving staircase from the lobby below. Thud. Thud. THUD. Fee-fi-fo-fum …
Now there’s a din just outside the door that drowns Sasse out, and the senator’s mic is turned up. The Nebraskan is stoic. But it is getting harder for the audience to stay focused. It’s getting louder and louder, and heads are craning back to see when the doors will burst open.
“One final question,” student body president Lauren Lemasters, a cool blonde in a black suit, announces. Someone tosses Sasse a softball on why he chose UF; he gives an anodyne answer, and then it’s over. Sasse maintains a dignified gait as he’s led out a side door—less than a minute before some 200 students file in, wielding bullhorns, walkie-talkies, and signs saying GO BACK TO NEBRASKA! and GET OUT OF OUR SWAMP! The outgoing college president’s name, Kent Fuchs, provides an easy excuse for profanity. FUCH SASSE! their signs proclaim.
Twitchy and grim administrators in suits and Ann Taylor office wear stand along one wall as a half-dozen protest leaders take the stage with their bullhorns and encourage more chants. For a full two hours, young socialists and LGBTQ activists hold the room. Security guards in bulletproof black stand on the stairs outside, but they are amiable, and they don’t intervene. There will be no violence today.
Finally, word arrives that the senator from Nebraska is leaving the building. The protesters rush out just in time to catch the taillights of a police car pulling away. They give chase and then disperse, leaving behind their KICK BENS ASSE! and BEN SASSE IS A HOMOPHOBIC PIECE OF SHIT! placards. Perhaps Sasse sees them; maybe not. He doesn’t have to look back, literally or metaphorically. The trustees will confirm him—over faculty objections—a few weeks later, at a meeting behind police barricades and from which indoor protests were barred.
The University of Florida’s 61,000 students exercised their First Amendment rights that day. But some of the institution’s 30,000 faculty and staff feel compelled to fight for theirs. For the last few years, DeSantis and the Republican legislature have targeted public education, enacting a barrage of anti-speech bills, with names like the “Stop WOKE Act,” which, for example, legally require professors to take into account whether their lectures on gender or race could make students “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions “committed in the past.”
Everyone believes the senator from Nebraska will plant the Republicans’ ideological agenda deeper into the campus. “I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that this is not a political hire,” said Candi Churchill, executive director of the United Faculty of Florida, which represents more than 25,000 public university faculty in the state. Churchill and faculty I spoke with expect Sasse to, at the very least, support statutorily mandated tenure reviews, and probably not try to fight Republican speech restrictions that the union and individual faculty are battling in court.
STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK MY BONES, BUT WORDS WILL NEVER HURT ME
Dispatches from the Northeastern elite college corridor since around 2013 suggest that the traditional “shake it off” children’s nursery rhyme is less true for 18-year-olds now than it ever was when they were five. Gen Z, it’s been said, is coddled to death—along with the American mind. Stories of professors’ fears of out of control, ultraliberal students have become legend. “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” one pseudonymous prof wrote in Vox in 2015. Colleges have censured or fired professors for discussing ideas that offend students. Smartphone video of students shouting down speakers whose politics or investments offend young sensibilities routinely shows up on Fox News.
Conservative media celebrates all this, of course. There’s also been a lot of subdued handwringing on the center-left. But are these images and anecdotes representative of what’s really happening on U.S. campuses? Are university deans everywhere protecting the tender feelings of lefty students at the expense of healthy, respectful, vigorous debate and critical thinking? Are thought, argument, and debate really dying? The picture painted in the media is of a horrified, unqualified yes. That conclusion is drawn mostly from dispatches from our nation’s elite campuses concentrated in the Northeast, where one would expect that kind of left politics to exist in more advanced stages. But it’s a big country out there. Is wokery crushing free inquiry everywhere?
With such questions in mind, The New Republic set out to do something a little different: to take the current campus speech temperature at three universities in very different milieus. During the fall semester, I visited the aforementioned University of Florida, the large, flagship university of a red state (with, as noted, one of the country’s most aggressively right-wing governors), with 61,000 students and 6,500 faculty; the University of New Mexico, the flagship institution of an out-of-the-way blue state, with 22,000-ish students and about 1,400 faculty; and, as a kind of control for the experiment, the OG of woke—Oberlin College in Ohio, with 2,900 students and about 340 faculty, where the tuition rivals the Ivies at $61,000, and which is reeling from a $36 million defamation judgment to a local baker over false racism accusations. How are these three disparate institutions similar? How are they different? What is the state of free inquiry at each? That’s what I wanted to find out.
One thing I found: More than half a century after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement set a new standard for campus protest, student speech is as robust as it ever was. Students are speaking. Some quite confidently and through bullhorns. And right-wing provocateurs roam the college speaking circuit. Confrontations between such speakers and lefty students are what make news, but when such talks go off without incident, which they do more often than not, it isn’t news. Inside classrooms, history and political science students are still learning and not just shouting one another down, arguing about critical race theory or whether enslaved people were really happy. But something else is changing: Conservatives who have long complained that their views are unwelcome on campuses are asking for protected space—intellectually at least. Republican lawmakers who used to scoff at trigger warnings and safe spaces for tender liberal snowflakes are now codifying speech restrictions to protect whites and males from feeling guilty about the histories of oppression. As campuses have become stage sets for Wokeism versus Trumpism, universities struggle to find a middle ground between encouraging protest and the optics of students confronting battle lines of RoboCop black. Administrators must navigate a course between the Scylla of an expanding definition of hate speech on the left and the Charybdis of increasingly bold deployment of that speech on the right.
“THE STATE OF FLORIDA IS WHERE WOKE GOES TO DIE”
In 2018, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt cataloged how elite universities catered to the tender feelings and demands of Gen Z students whose appetite for robust debate had been replaced by a new kind of intolerance from the left. Lukianoff (a lawyer and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE) and Haidt (an NYU social psychologist) blamed social media shaming and increasingly “paranoid parenting,” including a lack of free playtime for children, which had turned out a generation of anxious, depressed young adults.
The book was widely covered, but it was aimed at a sliver of U.S. higher ed—the elite private schools. “This book is not focused on the kids from the bottom three-quarters,” Lukianoff told me. “The problems faced by them are very different. When you look at the issues that affect the influential schools, they are dominated by the top fifth through the top 1 percent of the income distributions.”
FIRE conducts annual surveys of speech on campus, hauling in reams of data from students who rate the relative freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity on campuses. It ranks schools’ policies with color codes: red (tape over the mouth), green (protest away!), or yellow (cautiously open to viewpoint diversity, with some speech restrictions). The group’s 2021 survey of 159 colleges (a mix of private and public) found an average overall speech score of 59.53—about 7 points higher than the year before, but still, the report notes, a failing grade.
Lukianoff argues that many larger state schools have recently demonstrated a willingness to accept speech restrictions. “There are not that many schools where faculty and administration lean right, except for many Christian colleges,” Lukianoff said. “The administrations subscribe to left-leaning groupthink, and that is how these things are filtering down, even to state schools where the politics of the student population is more balanced.”
He blames what he calls a massive expansion of college bureaucracies staffed by “an even more politically homogeneous group of administrators” for nudging state schools in the direction of the politics espoused by the elite schools. This “homogenizing trend,” he said, started around 2004, when the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, added to its recommendations for accreditation a requirement that graduates “demonstrate their commitment to social justice.” Said Lukianoff: “FIRE viewed that as a political litmus test, and we fought it.”
The University of Florida is hardly a capital of woke—there are numerous buildings named after segregationists. And recently, the Florida legislature and DeSantis have been on a trophy hunt to bag Florida’s educators, including those in one of the nation’s top five public research institutions—the state university in Gainesville. “The state of Florida is where woke goes to die!” the governor crowed a few months ago.
They’re passing laws with names like the Stop WOKE Act and another that has been referred to informally as the “intellectual diversity” bill. The laws are aggressive: Professors must scrub their lectures of speech that students (most likely white males) might, according to one lawsuit filed against the Stop WOKE Act, find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, offensive.” Some professors report in lawsuits (and to me) that the act seems to require them to remove words like “social justice” and “race theory” from their syllabi. One new law specifically authorizes students to tape classes (viewed as a way for conservative students to cherry-pick “woke” statements). Another mandates “post-tenure reviews.” And in response to a legal challenge to the Stop woke Act, the state’s Board of Governors, which oversees its public universities, has argued that public university professors are state employees whose teaching should be classified as “government speech.”
The Board of Governors designed and implemented a political viewpoint survey for faculty and college students. Response rates to the surveys were laughably low: Only 2.4 percent of students and 9.4 percent of faculty and staff filled them out. But the Board of Governors created a report based on them anyway, with predictable results: Students reported that their professors were liberal.
The faculty union fought back. When the university, apparently in response to the new conflict-of-interest policy, prohibited three political scientists from testifying against the state’s position in a Florida voting rights case last year, the union joined the professors. Earlier this year, Judge Mark Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida sided with the professors against the university. Walker issued another injunction in November 2022 against the Stop WOKE Act, calling it “positively dystopian.” The state has been defending it.
Lawsuits include statements from professors on the effects of the assault so far. One professor removed prohibitions against neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and hate speech from her syllabus. Another said he stopped assigning course material that might be perceived as left of center. He reported altering lectures out of fear that any student “might be recording what [he’s] saying and ... looking for something that they can report that they find objectionable or complain about or who knows what with.”
In discussion over the bills, conservative lawmakers smirked with own-the-libs glee. During debate on the intellectual diversity bill, when one Democrat pointed out that the words “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, offensive” could mean different things to different people, bill sponsor Representative Spencer Roach responded: “I think that’s kind of the beauty of the thing.”
“THIS IS NOT MARXIST REVOLUTION!”
Before the Republican assault, the University of Florida was not exactly unfriendly to the right. White nationalist Richard Spencer and Donald Trump Jr. have both spoken on campus. Spencer’s visit, soon after the deadly Charlottesville march, brought outrage and police. But Don Junior appeared in 2019 as an invited guest of a student government speakers bureau, funded by student fees. The university provided heavy security, and protesters showed up, but the speech went off without incident.
Jeffrey Adler is a history professor who specializes in the history of racial violence. Tallahassee’s edicts, even those enjoined for now by a federal judge, make him nervous and despairing. Adler said he had considered revising his courses but realized doing so would make it impossible to accurately teach the material. “The notion that I would teach about lynching in ways that didn’t make people sitting there uncomfortable is absurd,” he said. “My job is to make people think about things they don’t want to think about. What’s a neutral attitude toward Hitler? I’ve heard from other professors that they were strongly discouraged from using the phrase ‘social justice’ in syllabi and classroom. This is not Marxist revolution, this is social justice!”
Adler is senior, tenured, and white, and said he doesn’t feel that vulnerable personally, but he added, “There are lower hanging fruit than me.” He believes the university is trying to appease Tallahassee by targeting younger professors and adjuncts, especially those whose coursework is explicitly at odds with the legislation. One younger Black scholar named Chris Busey, who was part of a committee that was putting together a new doctoral concentration on race and ethnicity, attended a meeting during the fall of 2021 where an associate provost told members of the committee to avoid using the words “critical” and “race” together, according to Busey’s notes. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Busey recalled the provost suggesting that they look for work elsewhere, and that he “left the meeting thinking that he should do just that.” In an email, Busey declined to comment, writing, “I am limited in what I can say at the moment.”
Adler has low expectations about new president Sasse: “My colleagues and I believe that the assault on academic freedom will only increase.”
“AN OBSCENE EROTIC NOVEL”
Students I spoke to on the Gainesville campus do not feel their speech is affected—yet—by the political moves. Marquelle Ogletree, a Black junior sociology major, was among the students who showed up to hear Sasse. “I have not personally experienced or seen any negative effects from it,” she said. “But as a sociology major, I notice there is definitely more of a careful way that our professors are going about subject matter because of the fear of being criticized by students because of the legislation.”
Ogletree has noticed professors issuing qualifying, preliminary statements designed to head off Stop woke Act critiques from students emboldened by the legislature to come into the classrooms and record their lectures. “They make clear at the beginning of class that they intend to stick strictly to empirical data, that kind of thing,” she told me. “There have been allusions to the bill and the implications it can have for their teaching and their own credentials going forward as professors.” Still, she said she hadn’t felt any peer pressure to conform to political ideologies, adding: “I think it depends on the kind of circles you are in. In my circles, I feel I can voice my opinion, and the others in the class do, too.”
The individuals for whom lawmakers passed the Stop WOKE Act—conservative whites and especially white males who might feel “uncomfortable” around discussions of past and present gender- or race-based oppression—do see it differently. The University of Florida has chartered five conservative organizations among its 950. They are Turning Point USA; Young Americans for Freedom, or YAF; the College Republicans; the Network of enlightened Women, or NeW; and the Federalist Society. Jackson Rowell, who until recently was an officer in UF’s YAF chapter, said “bias hides in plain sight” on campus. “I’ve been a student at UF for almost two years, and from my experiences in and out of the classroom, it’s very clear that there is an inherent bias towards left-wing ideals at the University of Florida,” he said. Rowell singled out English professors who “praise certain public-facing intellectuals without mentioning that said intellectuals subscribe to Marxist thought” and history professors who “cover conservative-right wing topics with negative undertones.”
He was especially offended to learn that a class called Jews and American Popular Culture included a mandatory reading of what he called “an obscene erotic novel,” Milk Fed by Melissa Broder. The book, he told me, contains “extremely detailed female masturbation scenes and vivid descriptions of incestuous and sometimes borderline pedophilic sexual desires. This obscene ‘freedom of speech’ is not only allowed but sanctioned by UF administration.”
Rowell is just an ordinary UF student, but the YAF chapter of which he was a part is a node in a dark money–funded, right-wing college provocateur machine with a history of harassing professors. Take, for example, Turning Point USA, which has a Professor Watchlist dedicated to “unmasking radical professors.” FIRE found that, of the nearly 150 professors featured on the Professor Watchlist who ended up in its Scholars Under Fire Database, nearly two-thirds, 96, are doxing victims: TPUSA called on parents and students to contact the professors’ respective institutions, and it provided phone numbers for them.
Matt Turner, president of the College Republicans, takes a more sanguine view of the Florida campus climate. He clarified that he is “not too personally keen on Donald Trump” and said, “Our speech is definitely not being limited. There is no systemic bias against the kind of speech me and my organization engage in. But there is definitely a sense that our speech is not welcome.” For example, he said, while tabling in an outdoor space reserved for club recruitment and discussion, he once had a student try to spit on him or shout him down while he was “simply advertising” his organization.
NEW MEXICO: TOMI LAHREN AND “THE MILO MASH”
A month before Florida students drove Ben Sasse into a secure, undisclosed location, Fox News viewers woke up one morning in mid-September to see broadcast cell phone video of University of New Mexico students pushing a door, on the other side of which Tomi Lahren was giving a speech. Lahren is a 30-year-old “conservative commentator” who has compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the KKK.
The University of New Mexico student body is 50 percent Hispanic. In spite or perhaps because of that, the UNM chapter of Turning Point USA chose to mark the first day of National Hispanic Heritage Month by hosting Lahren at the Student Union Building. “White supremacist Barbie,” said UNM campus activist Julie Bettencourt, a nonbinary senior who organized the rally. “Hate speech is not protected by the Constitution.”
After two-plus years of pandemic-related calm, UNM administrators were caught off guard that night. About 100 students protested the event, with at least one saying they were barred from entering the talk because they were brown-skinned. The university says that protesters made a hole in the wall, and after a smaller group of students charged the door of the lecture hall, Lahren had to be whisked away by campus guards. The speech ended early.
UNM has seen this before: A legendary Albuquerque street battle erupted in 2017 when Milo Yiannopoulos showed up on campus shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. That incident involved more than double the number of protesters and many more police, arrests, and accusations of tear gas use. Bettencourt remembered what they called “the Milo Mash,” and the police presence then prompted them to organize the Lahren protest on the QT. “We did use guerrilla advertising tactics,” they said. “We wanted to be sure, if police showed up, it would be too late.”
Of course, raucous student protests are exactly what TPUSA is after. A month later, UNM’s TPUSA chapter hosted another right-wing media star, Ian Haworth. A self-described “British Jewish guy” who came across the pond and ultimately turned to cheerleading for conservative causes, Haworth spoke without incident, because the university, braced for a repeat of the Fox-worthy property damage videos, called in the state police early. Protesters faced off against a line of bulletproof vests and face shields. Julie Bettencourt said officers bruised their face when they tried to “create a safety buffer” between police and protesters. A university spokeswoman said she had not received any reports of injuries stemming from the event.
OCCLUSION AND THE BUTTON IN THE DEAN’S OFFICE
The UNM campus is among the most diverse in the nation: The majority of students are Hispanic and Native American, many are first-generation college students—and they do lean left.
The college, like many campuses, features an agora for free speech, a “tabling” area where pro-life and religious proselytizers and TPUSA set up tables along with the socialists and nonpolitical clubs. The university does not have “safe spaces.” But in the past, when tabling images were disturbing—blowups of late-term fetuses from the pro-lifers, for example—UNM has put up a warning sign for passersby on a nearby sidewalk.
Bianca Lucero is a UNM senior English major, the bilingual child of a single mother who worked her way through college while raising her kids. When I asked her about viewpoint diversity on campus, she told me that classroom discussions are open and free—within limits. “They [professors] want to hear those debates, but by the same token if you are any kind of racist or sexist, anything like that, they don’t accept those views,” Lucero told me. “They want students to voice their views, but certain opinions are not allowed to be said.” When I asked her how she defined racism, Lucero said she and her friends include support for Trump.
J., a junior political science and history major, is a very active leader in conservative student politics. He spoke to me at length but asked that his name not be included, for fear that his conservatism would hurt his chances at getting into law school.
J.—who has tried and failed to form a College Republicans club on campus, because he can’t find a faculty member who’ll sponsor it—comes from a line of old land-grant New Mexico Hispanics, not new immigrants. Although his family are mostly Democrats, he called himself a fiscal conservative, and said he is politically motivated by religious faith. He rejected the notion that his Republicanism makes him a racist. But he knows his fellow students think otherwise. He conceded that Trumpist and MAGA violence and racism have not helped the situation: “Oh, you definitely are a pariah; conservative beliefs are vilified on campus,” he said. “Pro-life groups are unbelievably attacked. The other day, a guy walks by [the pro-life table] and said get off campus and kill yourselves. Look, no one is 100 percent Democrat or Republican, and that’s where those discussions need to happen. The issue is young people are beginning to associate their belief systems with Democratic policy, and they don’t support anything that could be Republican, because then you’re called a racist and a homophobe. I would like to see one policy I support that they can call racist. If I see racism, I openly stand against it.”
University administrators at UNM struggle to balance protecting provocative speech that many students label racist or homophobic and allowing protests against that speech. Cinnamon Blair, spokeswoman for UNM, said the university strives to encourage viewpoint diversity. She said she was unaware that the College Republicans couldn’t find a chapter sponsor among the faculty. “We value respect and speech, and we want people to feel they can protest freely,” Blair told me. “We don’t want people to be scared to attend an event. We want students to develop critical thought, not keep people from the marketplace of ideas.”
The university recently took up a longstanding campus controversy that pitted 1930s artistic expression against modern standards of racial equality. The old west wing of UNM’s Zimmerman Library is a Pueblo Revival–style building—a fusion of Spanish Mission and Indigenous architecture, with its adobe walls, tile floors, and carved wood ceiling beams. Sunlight pours in through colossal casement windows. In 1939, the Taos-based artist Kenneth Adams painted four large Works Progress Administration–style murals on one wall, called Three Peoples and celebrating New Mexico’s diverse populations: Hispanic, Indigenous, and white.
Since at least the 1970s, the murals have attracted occasional protests because of their white colonizer perspective: A white man in the center of one mural holds the hands of a Hispanic man on one side and a Native American on the other. Only the white man has a face; the other two are in profile, with no eyes or other visible facial features.
Starting in 2016, a new wave of protests against the depiction of faceless nonwhites in the mural prompted the administration to convene an advisory group. After some months, it offered up a solution: “occlusion.” In 2021, white shades were installed over each mural. The works are intact underneath but can be viewed by appointment only. The button that raises and lowers the screens is located in the dean’s office.
“I WAS SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING MOVING TO CHINA”
in contrast to Florida, the legislative movement to “stop woke” in New Mexico has not, so far, succeeded, although a bill was proposed to ban “critical race theory” in K-12 schools. That doesn’t mean the university isn’t adhering to norms that strike some as limiting. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller earned himself some infamy in 2013 with a fat-shaming tweet that read: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” UNM officially censured him—not for fat-shaming, but for lying about the purpose of his tweet, which he tried to excuse as a research project. The university called it “self-promotional” and ordered him to apologize to his colleagues and to submit to department chair monitoring for a time.
After that personal debacle, Miller approached the UNM faculty senate and asked them to articulate policies in line with the First Amendment. The senate didn’t take up his suggestions. Miller has since become a contributor to Quillette, a magazine that is a kind of refuge for libertarians of the non–alt-right, non-Claremont sort. His research skates on the cultural thin ice of sexual evolution and human nature, subjects that are getting harder if not impossible to talk about on most campuses. “I was seriously considering moving to China, because in my field I would have more freedom to do research than I do in America,” he said.
From his perch in Albuquerque, Miller sees a two-pronged assault on campus speech across the United States. One: Students run to administrators, departments chairs, and social media if a professor says anything they find offensive. Two: Universities prioritize federal grant money tied explicitly to diversity and social justice over free expression and debate. “UNM makes very, very clear their priority is federal research money, and anything that threatens that, they take very seriously,” Miller charged, “while violations of the First Amendment, they didn’t take at all seriously because that has no financial implications.”
OBERLIN: A PROFESSOR’S SUICIDE
It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time in the not-so-distant past when a former philosophy professor named Christina Hoff Sommers could incite rage and fear by appearing on the small Oberlin campus about 30 miles southwest of downtown Cleveland. Sommers is no Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulos or Donald Trump Jr. But she was controversial in the pre-#MeToo years because she published a widely discussed article questioning what she called exaggerated statistics on campus sexual assault.
On a cool April night in 2015, the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, or OCRL, welcomed Sommers for an evening lecture. The Oberlin Republicans were in the habit of inviting provocative speakers and had hosted John Bolton and Karl Rove in the past—with funds provided by a supportive trustee. Oberlin students had shown up and confronted those visitors with questions, but the Sommers protest was a new order of magnitude.
When the members of the OCRL arrived, they found themselves singled out by name as rapists on walls festooned with signs. CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS & OCRL SUPPORT RAPISTS!! read one. Students carrying signs and with tape over their mouths filed in and sat in the front rows.
The club’s faculty adviser, Tim Hall, was an iconoclastic philosophy professor on the liberal campus. He was not a red-meat Republican, but he was a small-government, free-speech libertarian. He held an undergraduate degree from Berkeley, a Ph.D. from UCLA, was a vegan, childless, lived with a pet parrot, and had a devoted following of students in the philosophy department who liked his commitment to critical thinking.
Despite interruptions, Sommers finished her speech that night. A question-and-answer session turned into an opportunity for students to recite accusations against her, and Hall rose to try to moderate, remembered Evelyn Wagaman, one of Hall’s students who attended the talk. The students wouldn’t have it. They shouted him down until he gave up without restoring order.
Sommers issued a bemused tweet the next day: “Told students that women could narrow wage gap by changing majors from, say, sociology to engineering. Room erupted. Horrified gasps & jeers.”
Hall, though, couldn’t just blow it off. Instead, after the event, friends noticed an unraveling. Hall started telling colleagues that he thought he was being followed, and that the campus security police were keeping track of him. He became paranoid and told friends he was afraid for his safety. One former student who had remained friends with Hall, Andrew Lipian, recalled rehashing the Sommers event over lunch with Hall: “His voice was quivering, he said things are really, really bad here.” For months, he brought up the event nearly every time they talked.
A few months after the event, Hall checked into a mental hospital for treatment. His brother came to visit. “What I heard from Tim was he was completely isolated and fucked up by this,” Brian Hall said to me. “It completely spun him out.”
Eventually Hall returned to campus. But on July 23, 2017, two years after the Sommers event, he killed himself by jumping off a nearby bridge. Stunned and grieving students asked to hold a memorial symposium in his name. Administrators initially rebuffed them, because they believed mention of suicide would be triggering to susceptible students. “They were afraid of something called suicide ideation, and they didn’t want us to name it after him,” Lipian recalled. In time, the administration relented. “People came, his girlfriend came, and his parrot, and we had mental health professionals and pamphlets and resources,” Lipian, who gave a eulogy, recalled. “They wouldn’t let us put up a picture. I said, ‘We have to ask ourselves, Why did this happen?’” Lipian texted The New Republic: “Since that eulogy I became convinced that the Sommers event played no small role in undermining his mental health, which inevitably resulted in his suicide.”
THE BAKERIES OF SPEECH
Bakeries have a strange way of turning up as pivotal places in recent U.S. free speech law. On June 4, 2018, for example, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in a landmark decision that a Colorado state commission violated the First Amendment protection of religious freedom when it ruled against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
In Oberlin, Gibson’s Bakery, a mom-and-pop shop close to campus that also sold alcohol, was popular with students for years. The shop was accustomed to student misbehavior, too. Michael Calb, a 2010 graduate, belonged to the OCRL. He was arrested for shoplifting from Gibson’s. “I was a broke college student who was doing stupid stuff, and I took a bottle of premixed gin and juice,” he told me. “I pled guilty, paid the fine, and did community service. I was sure my life was ruined, but now I am a lawyer.” Calb, who is half-Hispanic, said the idea his arrest might have been a racist act “never occurred” to him. “They absolutely have a right to arrest people for stealing.”
The controversial defamation case involved a similar incident. On November 9, 2016—the day after, as it happens, Donald Trump was elected president—a Black male, Jonathan Aladin, tried to steal two bottles of wine and was spotted in the act. He ran. The son of Gibson’s owner chased him down and tackled him. Police arrested Aladin, 19 at the time, and his two companions. When he entered his guilty plea in 2017, Aladin admitted that he had been trying to shoplift. He also stated that he believed the arrest was not racially motivated.
But it was way too late for that to matter.
The day after the arrest, students protested outside Gibson’s, bearing signs accusing the owners of racism, and some faculty and staff were reportedly present at the event. Flyers were handed out, and Oberlin vice president and dean of students Meredith Raimondo gave one to a reporter. (Oberlin claimed Raimondo was required to be at the demonstration, and that she provided the flyer in response to a request for information about the protest.) The matter never simmered down. Oberlin later posted in a display case a student senate resolution condemning Gibson’s for racism. Oberlin temporarily told its food supplier to cease ordering items from the shop. Students stopped going there. In 2017, the store went to court. And last summer, six years after the incident, Oberlin agreed to pay a whopping judgment of $36.59 million. In mid-December, a Gibson’s attorney confirmed that the family had received the payment in full.
The Gibsons did not sue the students but alleged that the college defamed them by adopting and publicizing the students’ charges of racism. Instead, they accused the college of helping students mount the protest and boycott by assisting with the flyers, excusing absences, and giving them credit for attending the event. The jury—picked, it must be said, from the largely working-class and Trumpy community that surrounds the elite blue island of the college—agreed. Faculty I spoke with believe Oberlin’s board of trustees has started paying out the judgment, but there is no public statement confirming it. The college hasn’t instituted any changes in speech rules for students, and those I spoke with told me nothing has changed. However, the board of trustees in October voted to revoke one of Oberlin’s bedrock traditions: bylaw language that gives faculty a strong decision-making role in university affairs.
“We face economic, administrative, regulatory, statutory, and even political constraints that were unfamiliar decades ago,” wrote trustee Lillie Edwards in an article published in the campus newspaper. “Our risk management assessment team has identified ambiguity in the bylaws as a liability in need of addressing.”
The faculty, not surprisingly, opposes the change. Kirk Ormand, a longtime Oberlin classics professor and president of Oberlin’s advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, like other faculty I spoke with, suspects the bakery judgment motivated the change. “The reason they gave us for amending the bylaws is that somebody did risk management and determined our bylaws weren’t sufficiently clear,” Ormand told me. “They won’t tell us who this team was. But if this risk management came about because of the Gibson’s case, then it is ridiculous, because the faculty are in no way responsible.”
Charles Peterson chairs the Oberlin Africana studies department. He disagrees that the faculty or administration have anything to apologize for regarding the Gibson’s protests. “It is part of our job and responsibility to support students and student expression, and most faculty will still feel that way,” he said. Peterson said the students who protested Gibson’s “had every right to mount a protest and to boycott.”
“UNLEASH THE STUDENTS”
After the Christina Hoff Sommers event, theater and dance professor Roger Copeland published a critical letter in the student paper, The Oberlin Review. It read in part: “Christina Hoff Sommers is not a right-wing, hatemongering provocateur like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. The heart of her argument is not that rape doesn’t exist, but that its frequency on campuses like Oberlin has been exaggerated. For those who take issue with her statistical analysis, the appropriate response is not to vilify or threaten the individuals who invited her to campus but rather to have confronted her during the vigorous question and answer, which followed her talk.”
During the Gibson’s trial, the defense put into evidence emails and texts, including one from Meredith Raimondo, the dean of students, responding to a fellow administrator about a different letter Copeland wrote to the newspaper that called on Raimondo to apologize to the bakery: “Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.” Raimondo, on scene at the protest and often named in the trial, left Oberlin in 2021 for a new job at Oglethorpe University in Georgia. She didn’t respond to emails sent through the Oglethorpe communications office.
Oberlin, via email through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.
Tim Hall’s brother, Brian, lives in California. He followed the Gibson’s Bakery case and said the email about unleashing the students renewed his suspicion that the campus climate contributed to his brother’s suicide. “That lady Raimondo had just become dean of students, and suddenly the response to Hoff Sommers was much, much more organized than protests before,” he said. “It was Tim in the auditorium with these kids feeling empowered, and he felt completely alone, attacked, and defamed. The university was never transparent with us. I can understand at the time not understanding the power that had been tapped into, but it doesn’t give them any less culpability. There was this feeling of betrayal, sacrificing him to this new altar, this new power source.”
THE WORLD, “OBERLINIZED”
Much has changed in the United States since the Gibson’s protests. Out fascists and crypto fascists are mainstreamed in American politics. Donald Trump smashed the so-called Overton window of accepted speech, replacing microaggressions with macro-aggressions and mocking trigger warnings. Tear gas and riot police returned to U.S. streets and college campuses.
The Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians no longer have a presence on campus, but not because they are banned. After Hall’s death, a physics professor picked up the baton as faculty adviser, but amid the pandemic, if there are conservatives at Oberlin today, they have not bothered to form a club.
The president of Oberlin at the time of the bakery protests was a white male who left his post a month before Hall’s suicide. Oberlin’s current president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, is a Black female. And campus activism seems to have simmered down.
Conservatives and others who graduated over the past decade talked to me about self-censorship in order to fit in on the tiny campus. All would agree that the campus isn’t a natural fit for anyone right of center. “I would definitely say it is an environment where it is difficult to have a controversial opinion on things,” said one liberal 2019 graduate. “Students take it personally: You are not a good person if you are pro-Trump, and within the community that was a big issue. It is one of those interesting things: The free speech ideal is upheld at Oberlin but very much restricted, because there is such an overwhelming consensus on these left-leaning politics. I found it difficult not to make a moral judgment on Trump people.”
Oberlin was one of the first schools in the nation to institute formal trigger-warning rules, instructing professors to take into account students’ feelings about readings to do with rape, racism, and homophobia. Then reports came in about Oberlin students protesting the cafeteria because it didn’t use authentic ingredients in Asian food. Professors began to consider allyship and intersectionality in their syllabi, readings, or lectures. Without Oberlin, arguably, Lukianoff and Haidt might not have been moved to write The Coddling of the American Mind. The New Yorker covered the way the students protested over cafeteria food that “appropriated” other cultures, while they also complained that it used inauthentic ingredients.
Africana studies chair Peterson said he teaches “conservative voices along with liberal voices. People confuse student protest and critique with whether we as faculty are professionals with respect to our approach and critical engagement.” He continued: “What I try to do in my field is to create a much fuller and more complex view of the history of the United States and the Western world. And a lot of that history is very complex in terms of relationships with marginal communities, be they women, Jews, African Americans, gay, transgender. Efforts by the state government of Florida are frightening.”
That is exactly the kind of speech that provokes conservatives, emboldened by Trumpism, Florida’s “Stop WOKE” laws, and perhaps even the Gibson’s judgment. The Ohio legislature is one of the most notoriously autocratic in the United States, gerrymandered to the hilt and generally behaving like a dictatorship, including ignoring state court orders to fairly redraw legislative maps. No surprise then that Ohio is also considering a bill similar to the Stop WOKE Act, applying speech restrictions to protect tender Gen Z feelings—but this time, conservative ones (though the current bill only applies to K-12 schools).
“After the George Floyd protests, the whole world got Oberlinized,” Roger Copeland said. “Things that I thought were unique to Oberlin were suddenly everywhere.” But a funny thing has happened: As the world got “Oberlinized,” Oberlin itself was undergoing a painful evolution from poster child of woke excess to “risk management”–minded losing defendant. Now the college is putting its money where its mouth was.
The wider world learned about “trigger warnings” as a novel, socially acceptable way to police speech and readings after Oberlin put up a web page announcing the practice in 2014. Faculty were not consulted before the page went live, and they begged administrators to take the page down, recalled Kirk Ormand. During the month it was online, The Guardian picked up on it. “We became a national laughingstock,” Ormand recalled. “But in my experience, that whole issue has calmed down on its own. Even I came around to the other side. I do occasionally give content warnings. I might say, we are reading something really disturbing today and some students might not be comfortable. I’ve decided, OK, whatever. And I get the sense that students are less insistent about it.”
So the lefties at Oberlin may be mellowing a bit, just as the righties in Florida seem to be Oberlinizing colleges for the right.