Oslo — The Oslo Freedom Forum is an annual event sponsored by the New York–based Human Rights Foundation, which brings together dissidents and journalists from all over the world to show that people of good will can promote basic freedoms without an overlay of ideology.
Censorship, both official and self-imposed, is an important theme here. We have heard stories from brave journalists such as Ecuador’s Nicolas Perez and Kosovo’s Jeta Xharra of efforts to silence them for expressing views unpopular with officials or special interests. So it was strange to be here and read that one of my friends and former journalistic colleagues back home in the U.S. has been fired merely for speaking her mind.
Earlier this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade paper for faculty members and administrators in universities, fired Naomi Schaefer Riley, a paid blogger for its website. Her crime? She had the courage to respond to a Chronicle story called “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering Into the Future,’” which stated that “young black-studies scholars . . . are less consumed than their predecessors with the need to validate the field or explain why they are pursuing doctorates in their discipline.” The article used five Ph.D. candidates as examples of those “rewriting the history of race.” Riley looked at the subject areas of the five proposed dissertations and concluded that they were “obscure at best . . . a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap at worst.” One dissertation dealt with the failure of the natural-childbirth literature to include the experiences of non-white women, another blamed the housing crisis on institutional racism, and still another attacked Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas for leading an “assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.”
Many academics I know agree that black-studies programs are often slipshod, academically non-rigorous, and repositories for “grievance” politics. But they won’t say so publicly, for fear of being branded as “racists.” Naomi Riley had the courage to state the obvious. The author of two substantive books on higher education, she has worked with me as an editor on such topics at the Wall Street Journal. She knows her stuff. Certainly in a 500-word blog post she oversimplified, but that’s the nature of the blog that the Chronicle hired her to write for — it consists of quick opinion takes on issues of the day. It is even called “Brainstorm” to make clear it doesn’t publish the definitive word on any issue.
Her lone blog post brought a torrent of criticism, attacks by MSNBC, and finally a petition demanding that the Chronicle “dismiss” her. It was signed by 6,500 professors and graduate students.
At first, the Chronicle defended Riley’s right to speak out and invited people to debate her on the subject. But within days, its editor caved to the mob, fired her, and wrote the following craven apology:
We’ve heard you. And we have taken to heart what you said. We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.
The publication has not commented on the appropriateness of the other bloggers on its site who ridiculed Riley, engaged in name-calling, or otherwise smeared her. The authors of the petition celebrated their victory with the ironic statement “Viva Civility!”
Though it was far away, this hubbub attracted attention from some of the speakers at the Oslo conference. A couple noted how surprising it is that political correctness in academia is now shutting off debate in the U.S., the country where academics supposedly prize vigorous discussion and vigilantly guard against any sign of McCarthyism.
Nick Cohen is an atheist and former leftist who writes for the Observer and Guardian newspapers in Britain. His most recent book, entitled “You Can’t Read This Book,” examines the new forms of censorship that are emerging in the 21st century. He warned those at the Oslo Freedom Forum that many in the West now “surround taboo subjects with a bodyguard of politically correct humbug. This form of self-censorship has had a profound effect on liberalism.” He noted that “censorship is at its most effective when no one admits that it exists. ‘No one else is complaining, so move along now,’ becomes the mantra.”