English: A view from Utah State University, ne...
English: A view from Utah State University, near the Taggart Student Center, with Old Main in the distance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I graduated from the University of Utah, which is about 70 miles south of Utah State University. It’s a familiar area for me. So when I heard that the feminist and media critic Anita Sarkeesian was effectively chased out away from Utah State by threats of gun violence, I paid special attention.

Sarkeesian is a critic of how women are treated in mass media, and has recently created more controversy with her role in Gamergate (or #gamergate), in which the criticism she and others have levied against the gaming industry — for sexist objectification of women and misogyny in video games — has led to major flameouts on social media.

Gamergate is yet another reminder of one negative side-effect of social media — the discordant aspects, which can lead to intimidation and harassment when disagreements erupt. (“There be trolls!”) However distasteful these incidents are, they are mild in comparison to outright threats of violence or retaliation.

Unfortunately, these latter situations are arising on college campuses — including the incident involving Sarkeesian at Utah State — and are made more acute by a culture moving rapidly to liberalize gun laws along with a shameful record of recent school shootings.

The prevalence of guns in public places has increased significantly as a consequence of the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Court ruled that the Second Amendment protected the individual’s right to bear arms. This was a more expansive ruling than any in the past, as the Second Amendment had traditionally been interpreted as sanctioning the right to bear arms more for defending national or state interests (which acknowledges the first words of the amendement, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State . . . “).

Between 2011 and 2012, 34 states introduced bills to allow “concealed carry” for individuals — that is, the right to carry arms in public. Utah went one step further, and is the only state with a law that specifically identifies colleges and universities as non-exempt. Seven other states have laws that allow concealed weapons on campuses.

This is a disturbing trend, and schools continue to be a target for gun violence, from elementary schools through to post-secondary schools — Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Northern Illinois University. In an analysis of its news coverage, the Huffington Post found 27 shootings at or near universities in 2013. Shootings near colleges were sufficiently impactful to cause campus-wide shutdowns or shelter-in-place situations. One of these — the shooting of MIT campus police office Sean Collier after the Boston Marathon Bombings — gives you an idea of how frightening and disruptive these can be. Overall, the Huffington Post reporters found that 18 people died in shootings on or near college campuses in 2013.

Concealed carry laws have led to some unintended consequences, including increased costs for arming campus security personnel. One laugh/cry incident involved a University of Idaho professor shooting himself in the foot with his own concealed weapon.

The incident at Utah State involving Anita Sarkeesian also sheds light on remnants of misogyny and sexism in our culture. As a critic of sexism in video games (#gamergate), Sarkeesian and other women have received bomb threats and other threats of violence. Oddly, as noted in this excellent interview from a recent Colbert Report, men who have sided with Sarkeesian, including Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, have not been threatened:

There are more subtle implications to the atmosphere being created by these laws and the mounting tide of violence, threats, and intimidation. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Sinor, a professor of English at Utah State, notes:

Less visible are the ways that individual faculty members censor themselves. They may choose to omit course material or change course content because of a perceived threat; unconsciously alter course content without fully realizing they are responding to the presence of guns; or retire early because they are hesitant to teach at a campus that permits guns. Speakers may decline to talk at colleges that cannot guarantee a gun-free venue. Finally, colleges may be reluctant to challenge state legislators on gun policies for fear that future funding might be reduced.

The Supreme Court ruling does contain a glimmer of hope, as the majority ruling, written by Justice Scalia, notes that the court’s decision:

. . . should not be taken to cast doubt on . . . laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools or government buildings.

The University of Wisconsin has established a policy preventing concealed weapons in certain buildings. Other approaches are also possible. But universities are in a predicament, as the legislators who passed these laws are also responsible for a large amount of state university funding. Are university administrators willing to risk funding cuts in order to push concealed weapons off campus?

Threats like those Sarkeesian faced are also difficult to prosecute. Not only is there some indifference on behalf of law enforcement to track down all but the most prominent threats, but there are technological barriers and strategies that can thwart almost any attempt to track down the perpetrators. The recent moves by technology companies to make it impossible to track user data may seem a victory for freedom of speech, but if it makes intimidation impossible to prosecute, have we really achieved anything but a Pyrrhic victory?

Intimidation and threats can squelch free speech. When laws allow college campuses and schools in general to become subject to threats when some disagree with ideas, we have a more fundamental problem. Academic freedom is not a game.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


10 Thoughts on "Dare I Say This? — The Chilling Effect of Gun Laws on Academic Free Speech"

Read the second amendment to the Constitution. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Period. The fact that it has been infringed is the real news here. The fact that people like the author are questioning it in 2014 speaks volumes about the extent to which so-called progressive liberals are willing to to go undermine our basic rights.

The Second Amendment is one of the least clear, as it reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” For most of US history, this was interpreted to mean that gun control legislation was permitted (“well regulated”) and the right mostly pertained to citizens serving in the military (“Militia” and “being necessary to the security of a free State”). The more recent interpretation is relatively new and fairly radical.

In any event, this is not meant to start a debate about the Second Amendment — the larger society will continue that debate. The question here is whether colleges and universities are doing enough given the carve-out in the 2008 decision and their obligations to protect free speech (the First Amendment). That’s the discussion to have here.

Kent, as you have found out, there is no free speech when speaking with a person with a gun!

Before we go too far down the rabbit hole of a gun control debate, I’m stepping in to try to moderate the comments that have been coming in. This post is about free speech suppression and academic freedom, and there are plenty of places online to debate gun laws, so off topic comments will not be posted.

How is this different from, say, Brandeis dis-inviting Ayaan Ali Hirsi as commencement speaker? She received death threats as well. The universities have utterly lost track of opposing viewpoints and are acting a great deal like social media. Someone needs to take the helm and restore the charter.

Most of my recent teaching has been at a distance (online) and I feel safer for it. This led me to think that we may be headed toward a time when lectures and presentations are made by holographic images of the speaker in order to neutralize the potential threat of an armed audience.

None of the shootings in the Huffington Post article were motivated by academic speech as far as we know. The closest was a student allegedly shooting an administrator during a disagreement about financial aid. Let’s not make fear worse by overstating the danger.

That said, many schools have codes of conduct which go above and beyond what is legal. You probably can’t ban guns in some places without risking a lawsuit, but you can make sure there are severe consequences for violence and threats of violence. The aim is to create a campus culture where people can disagree with each other and still remain civil.

I would rephrase your last sentence as: “The aim is to create a campus culture where learning can occur.” The intimidation from weapons can really inhibit the ability to learn.

While the effect of an increasingly armed public is indirect, it’s also unmistakable. Threats overall have to be taken more seriously, and campus security has to be beefed up. People think twice before assembling in public to protest, express their ideas, or rally because there is a chilling effect. It’s what we don’t see — the self-censorship, the suppression of ideas — that is at issue as well.

Comments are closed.