A Conservative Defense of Free Speech for a Black Activist

June 28, 2017

I am no fan of Lisa Durden, recently fired from her position as an adjunct professor of communication at Essex County College, a community college in New Jersey. I do not care for commentators who make broad generalizations about "you white people," and her politics are far to the left of mine. Yet it is precisely as an academic conservative that I must say, to coin a phrase, I’m with her.

This month, Durden appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight. At issue was a Memorial Day event, co-sponsored by Black Lives Matter NYC, and promoted as "a space for black people." One commenter, listed as an event co-host, went a little further and said that people who "do not identify as black" should "respect the space" and "not come." In the Facebook universe, to this very day, all of nine people have "loved" that comment, and seven have "liked it." Nonetheless, Carlson was on the case.

The discussion was exactly what you might expect. Carlson complained that discouraging white people from attending the event was "disgusting" and contrary to the universal principle that one should not discriminate on the basis of race. Durden, who had appeared before on Fox News, was obligingly obnoxious — "you white people," she said, "crack me up." She argued that there was nothing wrong with a single event on a single night being exclusively for black people.

Behind this discussion was an issue about which reasonable people, liberal or conservative, can disagree: Under what circumstances is it necessary or prudent for members of groups that suffer discrimination to hold nonmembers at arm’s length?

Essex thereupon suspended and then fired Durden, whose affiliation with the college had not even been mentioned on the program.

If you had your outrage meter tuned really high, you could be angry that Durden spoke of "you white people," though, in her brief exchange with Carlson, it is clear that she does not regard white people as a monolithic group. For my money, the most offensive words were uttered by Carlson, who said that Durden’s substantively, if not stylistically, unremarkable argument in favor of a Memorial Day party for black people was "indistinguishable" from what "a Nazi" would say.

Yet if someone proposed that Carlson should be denied an adjunct position at Essex County College because he has said some insensitive things, we conservatives would object.

We would object strenuously if this denial were justified in the way the Durden firing has been justified. The president of Essex, Anthony E. Munroe, says he fired the adjunct because he believes "that institutions of higher learning must provide a safe space," and because the college is committed to "diversity and inclusion." He says that he had "students, faculty, and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern, and even fear" over Durden’s comments.

If Carlson’s imaginary adjunct-instructor position were in jeopardy, we would ridicule President Munroe for coddling the "snowflakes," who mustn’t be frustrated, and who are frightened by edgy talk-show commentators. Lisa Durden behaved on Tucker Carlson Tonight, and spoke no differently, than others who appear on that show and on its combative counterparts. Lisa Durden said that it is all right to ask white people not to attend a Memorial Day party. Pass the smelling salts.

Mr. Munroe adds that the college "also supports and affirms the right of free speech and independent views and expressions of those views for our faculty and staff." We conservatives would point out, if Durden were one of our own, that a college cannot claim to be for free speech and then fire people because their views depart, however slightly, from its diversity and inclusion orthodoxy.

This year we conservatives dutifully stood up when Charles Murray was shut down at Middlebury College because he co-wrote The Bell Curve. We even stood up for a man of the left, Bret Weinstein, also undone by an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, when his colleagues at Evergreen State College called for him to be disciplined. We like to say that we stood up for Weinstein in the name of free speech, but a reasonable person might suspect that we really stood up for him because he was bashing his more radical colleagues.

Perhaps we conservatives are prepared to overlook our principles and reputations because it is a pleasure to see the language of safe spaces come back to bite the left.
If we do not stand up for Lisa Durden, who has not merely been denied a forum or threatened with discipline but actually fired for airing her views publicly, then that reasonable person’s suspicions will be confirmed.

Perhaps we conservatives are prepared to overlook our principles and reputations because it is a pleasure to see the language of safe spaces come back to bite the left, or because Durden, who has compared her experience to a lynching, is an unsympathetic victim. If so, we have one other reason for backing up Durden: saving our own skins. If she can be fired because her views on race offended someone, so can any critic of affirmative action, or of the field of ethnic studies, or of immigration policy under the Obama administration. If a college administration can fire Durden because some in its community were frustrated, concerned, and even frightened by her views, then they can fire anyone, but maybe especially us.

Essex County College is a public institution governed by the First Amendment. If Durden sues, the college may well lose. We can also expect the college to be denounced by free-speech and academic-freedom organizations, like the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education. But it would speak well of our consistency if conservatives, too, stood up for Professor Durden’s rights. I’m looking at you, Tucker Carlson.

Jonathan Marks is a professor of politics at Ursinus College.