Politics & Policy

Censoring Naomi Riley

She was fired for having the courage to state the obvious.

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.”

While Cohen’s warning was directed at those who stifle debate on Muslim radicalism in Europe and refuse to recognize the failure of officially imposed multiculturalism, he lost no time in telling me how appalled he was at the news of Riley’s firing. “These people calling for her head are the same ones who would scream McCarthyism if someone demanded that academics who defend Iran, excuse terrorism, or accept support from dubious Middle East regimes be called to account,” he told me. “At the same time, they would of course be appalled if someone accepted funding from the Pentagon for a research study.”

James Kirchick, a contributing editor to The New Republic and a former writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe, told me of the Riley case, “This is precisely why I am no longer on the left. It is disturbing to see such bullying.”

For decades, academics have demanded tenure, ostensibly not to secure the effectively lifetime employment it creates but to give them the freedom to voice unpopular opinions and conduct research that challenges conventional thinking. Well, Naomi Riley isn’t an academic and didn’t have tenure at the Chronicle. But she had a right to express her view, have her employer back her up, and not see her reputation attacked. Few, if any, of her critics actually tried to refute her criticisms of black-studies dissertations. Instead, they sought to shut her up, and in so doing, they sent yet another message that some liberals today have become at least as intolerant of debate as any of the fundamentalists and traditionalists they abhor. The same people who nodded approvingly when Barack Obama criticized people who “cling to guns or religion” during the 2008 campaign are clinging to the destructive view that there should be different academic standards for those in minority-studies programs — and that anyone who speaks out against them should be labeled a racist, a possibly career-ending stain for some people.

The Internet’s reach being what it is, a remarkable number of the 400 people attending the Oslo Freedom Forum this week were fully informed of the Riley firing. It obviously paled in comparison to the brutal actions of dictators and vicious torture of dissidents that were featured during the Forum’s panels. But nonetheless it was embarrassing for me, as an American, to admit to foreigners that our country has slipped into a soft censorship on certain taboo subjects. After Riley’s firing, I have no doubt there will be fewer people brave enough to challenge that censorship.

— John Fund is the national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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